For her sophomore full-length release, FKA twigs strips her music down to a fragile, spindly framework. Five years after the English musician delivered the mind-spinning debut LP1, she offers Magdalene, which retains the sense of relentless innovation and pushes further into elegant abstraction. A fleet of producers pitches in on the album, but twigs mostly credits noted experimental artist Nicolas Jaar with helping her find the creative direction for the album. There’s a clear kinship to Jaar’s airy, spare electronica in the way twigs makes the material as bare and raw as knees dragged across jagged asphalt, but there’s no doubt that the vision is purely, decisively the property of twigs.
The album’s title is a thesis of empowerment, reaching back to one of the first women who suffered the indignity of being diminished, portrayed as less than she was. On the track “Mary Magdalene”, twigs sings, “A woman’s work/ A woman’s prerogative/ A woman’s time to embrace/ She must put herself first.” It’s not just that first line, echoing a famous song by Kate Bush, that recalls the iconoclastic predecessor of precise, aching pop. There’s an unyielding emotion to twigs’s music, especially her singing. Every keening, twisting, or splintering note feels like it is calibrated for maximum impact.
Every track is a discovery, and new elements keep emerging. “Sad Day” has sputtering beats that are like the rolling streams between languorous pop oases, and “Thousand Eyes” is a zinging, buzzing act of constant escalation. “Fallen Alien” hints at what might happen if Fiona Apple rode her sensibility through a machine that projects M.I.A. into the soul. But, again, these comparisons are naturally strained, inadequate. They distract from the truth of twigs’s striking originality. She shapes otherworldly music and knows exactly how to place herself within it to maximize her impact. On “Holy Terrain,” her mellifluous vocals contrast with the shivery rap of Future. And the quietly majestic “Cellophane” is exquisite, like it’s cracking open a portal to a better pop universe.
And twigs is always powerfully present, spreading vivid feeling across artful, slightly cryptic lyrics that hint at pain and possibility at once. For other performers, material like that found on Magdalene can be distancing, feeling so refined it’s as if the blood has been drained out of it. The question of twigs changes that equation. She is too alive to possibility, crackling with icy charm. More than anything else, her vulnerability is so plainly, poignantly on display. One things for certain about twigs: She’s not hiding.