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What’s up with FKA twigs’ voice on ‘Magdalene’?

FKA twigs

FKA twigs Photo courtesy of BT PR

The story of FKA twigs is also the story of how pop music has distorted the human voice.

The English art-pop singer-songwriter’s first full-length album, 2014’s acclaimed LP1, featured her unencumbered soprano, with skeletal beats and tricky song structures that accentuated a naked vocal. But on her second album, Magdalene, released last Friday, that high, lonesome sound is garbled: While still presented as a token of intense feeling, her voice gets strained, squelched, and vacuumed through a series of queasy digital filters. Magdalene combines two honorable pop traditions: the artsy Auto-Tune tradition of electronically textured singing that comments on subjectivity and emotional representation, and the self-involved follow-up album in which the artist turns inward and places herself under a suffocating scrutiny.

When FKA twigs first became a star, her style perplexed. Critical comparisons aside, she neither quite fit the Weeknd model of decadently tortured R&B nor the PC Music model of ostentatiously conceptual dance music; she inhabited her own slow, breathy, theatrical, minimalist world. But times have changed and sea levels risen, and on Magdalene she returns to a pop landscape that has since absorbed her influence. Sparse tracks and creepy confessional whispers now abound on the charts and radio, as Billie Eilish and Shaed demonstrate; I hear her ghostly presence in Rosalia’s electroflamenco and the evolution of Bon Iver into a disembodied moaning talkbox.

Twigs’s singing has gradually edged closer toward Western classical tradition—in her vocal tone as well as melodies that mechanically ascend and descend the scale, she sounds operatic, almost Gregorian, which suits the Mary Magdalene theme. There’s a tension between such antiquarianism and the warped electronic sound. Ancient vs. modern! On “Fallen Alien” she chirps, whispers, chants, wobbles, and screams at herself in a digitally refracted mirror; the beat, whose solitary piano is intermittently interrupted by ominous percussive bells, background shrieks and exhalations, and other roaring noises, is equally kaleidoscopic.

“Home With You” is almost a straightforward piano ballad, complete with corny chord changes and grandly triumphant dynamics—except the vocal filters are going haywire, alternating between a watery, artificially high squeal and an even goofier lower moan. “I didn’t know that you were lonely/If you’d have just told me, I’d be home with you,” she declares, and her voice, especially when she sings low, has a raspy, earthy grain to it. As the music’s dizzy perpetual motion evokes all the dramatic barriers that can build up between people, her voice cuts through the sound and conjures a weirdly vulnerable empathy.

The more impatiently Magdalene jumps from register to register, the more riveted twigs sounds, the more emotionally engaged. The songs that present her voice unfiltered trickle and wilt. On “Mary Magdalene” she sighs a hymn and/or come-on in her purest, most refined choral soprano; the keyboards are almost silent, providing only hushed, reverent background clicks to adorn her fell swoops. Her voice is too fussy, too spindly to sustain a song alone, and “Mary Magdalene” keeps waiting to go somewhere, building anticipation for a change that never comes—not necessarily a conventional climax (how vulgar) but some different destination denied by the music’s spareness.

The combination of pop erotics with classical elements, the Mary Magdalene theme and the whole medieval vibe, is supposed to function as a postmodern reclamation of religious classical music history while casting a cold feminist eye on reductive narratives about women like Mary Magdalene. (“I can lift you higher/I do it like Mary Magdalene,” she intones.) Referring to all that fancy stuff in the first place rather convolutes the erotics, though. There’s a point at which it doesn't matter to what canny end you’re using a certain vocabulary, the vocabulary just takes over; FKA twigs reaches this point when, on “Sad Day,” she whispers the line “I lie naked and pure with intentions to cleanse you and take you.”

FKA twigs epitomizes one of the decade’s crucial avant-pop trends, in which spare, quiet music enables a wild vocal performance. Young Thug, Lana Del Rey, and SZA have soared, plummeted, gasped over minimal and sometimes inaudible beats. Often these artists enact anxieties over control. To alter your voice, give it electronic texture, let it splatter and splash in ways you can’t predict before the moment, is to test your autonomy as a performer. The distorted faces on twigs’s album covers, which express a sort of generic modernist alienation, are such music’s visual equivalent.

But in this realm, twigs’s extreme spareness works against her. The restrained, pittering keyboards frame her voice at the center, and so each time she slips an electronic mask on or off, each time she loses or regains control, the moment is too easily pinpointed; it’s clear she’s in control the whole time. By Thug’s or Rosalia’s standards her textual disruptions aren’t that disruptive. Unless you concentrate, Magdalene’s mild, fluttery cadence hardly demands your full attention, and the album fades into the background as readily as any other millennial pop album perched several rungs down the irony ladder.

I wonder to what extent this dynamic corrects its opposite. There’s a common rock tendency for a quiet, modest singer to get flattened by a wall of beautiful sound: shoegaze mumblers, chillwave hypnotists, the War on Drugs, and every other awful band to have depicted solitary heroic men facing down unstoppable, feminine-identified forces of nature. Writhing self-examination can seem a relief in such a context. I find both dynamics played out in 2019, though—music isn’t a zero-sum game, after all. There’s still room to make everything louder, or weirder, or sillier, than everything else.

FKA twigs
Where: Palace Theatre
When: 7 p.m. Thurs. Nov 14
Tickets: 18+; $35/$40; more info here