opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN
“How’s That” is the title of the opening track on EP2, the second release in as many years by London-based solo artist FKA twigs, and in the lyrics that titular question ends, “…feel?” Later on, twigs responds suggestively, “So, so amazing. / I want you in my….” Given how closely R&B is associated with sexuality, it’s noteworthy that throughout the recent resurgence of the genre in indie circles, the entries with the most real staying power have tended to be those that maintain this thematic association: the xx, the Weeknd, and Rhye, to name a few, have put out enduring records while dozens of artists making shadowy, hushed “PBR&B” fade upon impact. The pointedly erotic nature of the genre’s more successful practitioners belies qualities that matter critically: ingenuity, audacity, aesthetic sensitivity, commitment to a sound and awareness of its history. From those opening lyrics on “How’s That,” FKA twigs announces herself as a voice who deserves added to the shortlist of R&B-influenced artists who aren’t so sex-shy. The four songs on the all-too-brief EP2 are a pronounced improvement over twigs’s (already solid) 2012 debut EP, offering incisive commentary on the emotional ramifications of sexuality in the form of intelligent, devastatingly beautiful pop.
FKA twigs – that’s “formerly known as twigs,” after another musician with the same moniker lodged a complaint – makes music that wavers on the line between welcoming and darkly chilling, an intriguingly off-kilter blend that’s hyper-current and yet resembles nobody else’s in particular. Like many of her peers, twigs’s brand of R&B owes nearly as immense a debt to British bass music and revived 1990s trip-hop as it does to Aaliyah and Janet Jackson. Obvious antecedents include Tricky’s Maxinquaye and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, two British albums that, like this one, merge slinky jazz-derived grooves with cloudy atmospherics that can switch from dreamy to sinister as capriciously as actual English clouds. She’s also touching on more recently developed techniques such as stuttering, wordless vocal samples and predilection for echo and cavernous negative headspace.
What helps EP2 stand out is how dense, lush, and busy these low-key compositions are. twigs has a knack for odd details that flesh out her songs’ simple, repetitive skeletons in unexpected ways: the chorus “How’s That” unfolds over an unlikely pairing of plummeting bass lines and pinging keyboards, while the first third of the massive closer “Ultraviolet” is sustained by warped, wavering vocal loops before the track takes off into more energetic, even radio-friendly territory. All of the production decisions here are bold, effective, and clever, and some are all-out brilliant: “Papi Pacify,” an organ-dusted sex jam, climaxes (ahem) with an intense barrage of clipped strings that’s genuinely dizzying, and the aching Arca-produced highlight “Water Me” spends nearly a third of its runtime creaking and gasping into being before settling finally into the EP’s strangest and subtlest beat, a brittle patter that sounds like it’s perpetually decelerating.
These ever-shifting sonics prove an ideal setting for twigs’s ambiguity-steeped lyrics, which veer between sumptuously content and hauntingly abject. The music frequently undercuts tonally positive lyrics, such as the twisted pitch-shifting on “Ultraviolet,” and all four productions bring out new shades and emotions from their evocative but vague, mantra-like lyrics. On “Papi Pacify,” it’s the lyrics themselves that disrupt the mood with sharp left turns like, “Tell me you’re the one that I can call, / Even if you choke.”
“Water Me” is by far the most emotionally direct track here: a stark, disturbing, and fragile, yet gorgeous plea for physical love that revolves around the wrenching concession, “He won’t make love to me now…I guess I’m stuck with me.” Throughout EP2, twigs’s voice is simultaneously rich and airy, and while she applies herself ably to the more appealingly sensual numbers here, it’s “Water Me” that best displays her vocal gifts. The singer has learned well from the examples set by her most talented R&B forebears that less is often more. Her muted, unadorned, and elegantly tuneful take is more effectively heartbreaking than any amount of histrionics, and the result is an amazingly graceful track that easily ranks among the year’s best. That an artist with so few tracks to her name could generate even one song so unforgettable is astounding; that her entire second EP has such a distinctive, cohesive sound that’s considerably more than the sum of its fascinating parts suggests the attention FKA twigs ought to be paid from here on out. [B+]