By Alex Lodge @alexlodgemusic
Everyone loves a back-story with their music – it puts everything in context – and as back-stories go, there’s nothing better than a rags to riches, underdog-takes-the-prize back-story. In today’s world of the relentless digital information tsunami, pop music has become much more this type of package deal, which is why everything you read about Tahliah Barnett aka FKA Twigs debut full length LP1 (Young Turks) plays on the fact that she began her career as a backing singer and dancer for artists such as Ed Sheeran, Kylie Minogue and Jessie J, before transcending this supporting role to release one of the experimental pop albums of the year etc etc. While this context informs our understanding in certain ways, the real interest here lies in the strange, fractured otherness of the music itself.
LP1 is steeped in what, on a casual listen, can appear to be the standard smoky siren song of the young R&B artist but is actually so much deeper and more nebulous than that. It’s peppered with eroticism, but with the heavy baggage of trust issues that give us a mystery to unravel in the lyrics. “When I trust you we can do it with the lights on” she proclaims in Lights On, giving us a second glimpse of the fragility of this artist after the elegiac choral arrangement in ‘Prelude’ that opens the album.
Everything about FKA Twigs whispers sex infused with self-consciousness, its subject matter refracted through a brittle, icy lens. The video for the track ‘Two Weeks’ displays this perfectly. It features Twigs as an Egyptian queen surrounded by supplicants (also played by her) that could have been lifted straight from Beyoncé’s sexy ideas notebook, but with her movements choreographed to seem nervous and unsure.
It’s when we reach fourth track ‘Hours’ that this fragility really hits home. We have another glimpse of this juxtaposition of overt sexuality and self-doubt: ‘I could kiss you for hours […] Am I certain to fit all of your needs?’, all delivered in her trademark wispy, barely-there falsetto. The production is full of sonic shifting sands, the percussion brittle and alien and the music forever turning strange corners, different layers coming and going and adding to the sense of unease pervading the lyrics.
‘Video Girl’ gives us a sense of the wider context mentioned above, describing her ascent to solo performer through the finishing school ranks of the pop video extra. The rest of the album, however, is business as usual. There is a nice balance between chart friendly tracks for the pop fan and chin strokers alike and a more challenging, introspective electronica, but after the first half of the album it feels like the point has been made and there’s little, if any, new ground to be explored. This having been said, the release stands up as a whole and offers entry for the brave into the beautifully dark labyrinth that is FKA Twigs’ mind.
In the music industry’s rush to situate every release immediately in the context of a canon, Twigs has been allotted contemporaries such as The Weeknd, and compared to R&B legends past such as Aaliyah and D’Angelo, but what’s different here is that every note of artists like The Weeknd is so infected with clichéd Americanisms that it’s hard not to see it as having fallen off the end of a massive production line. This isn’t to identify LP1 as being imbued with an inherent Englishness, but that it is less about the recycling of the standard urban template of overt female sexualisation; rather choosing to explore the concepts of love, sex and romance from a more fragile and mysterious locus.