opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
Instant pleasure is the jurisdiction of pop, and pop radio is a place where R&B reigns. Tahliah Barnett makes R&B of a sort, but she works a snare subtler than most. If you haven’t followed her dazzling rise as FKA twigs, all the commotion she’s caused may seem bewildering. Her songs offer few tuneful entryways. They demand both effort and time to unspool. Born in Southwest England’s Gloucestershire, a rural county described by her as “kind of in the middle of nowhere,” Barnett didn’t find rapture in the Cotswolds or the Forest of Dean. At the age of seventeen, she bid farewell to green pastures and decamped for London to study dance. One can hear in her music’s refusal to cleanly accommodate description, especially rhythmic description, not only a puckish rejoinder to her earliest gigs, swaying in lockstep for pop stars such as Jessie J and Kylie Minogue, but also a high-five to the Gloucestershire teenager with the dream of fronting a punk rock band. (Fare thee well, Forest of Dean!)
In 2012, while still earning cash backup-dancing and modeling, Barnett christened herself twigs (the moniker a reference to the cracking, snapping sounds of her joints in motion) and self-released her first collection of solo music. EP1 – a solid, if hardly earth-shattering, statement of artistic purpose – was promising enough to gain interest from Venezuelan producer (and Yeezus-alum) Arca and UK indie label Young Turks. Twigs’ admirable second release, 2013’s EP2 (naturally), was co-produced by Arca and featured two extraordinary tracks: the languid “Papi Pacify,” which recalled a bit of Janet Jackson, with a whiff of Madonna, and “Water Me,” a chorus-less, if comparatively straightforward, appeal for human connection. Those EPs have rightly provoked great enthusiasm, and set stratospheric expectations for twigs. But they were little more than a warm-up for what she has now delivered.
Twigs begins her bravura full-length debut LP1 with what sounds like a sacred incantation: “I love another, and thus I hate myself.” She sings those words, a direct quote from a sonnet by English Renaissance poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, as a chorale, on repeat with layered vocals and spectral reverb. The song is titled “Preface,” true to the utilitarian model in which twigs prefers, and it announces the first of many thematic contrasts to come: sexual braggadocio versus self-loathing (“Two Weeks” and “Lights On”), steely reserve versus emotional fragility (“Pendulum”), dominance versus submission (“Hours”), a thirst for fame versus its early pitfalls (“Video Girl”), self-love versus the need for contact (“Kicks”). Barnett presents herself as a savior to her lover on “Give Up” (“I’m not gone let you give up babe”), shortly after fantasizing about cold-blooded vengeance on “Numbers” (“Tonight, I’ve got a question for you/ Tonight, do you want to live or die?”). These jolting shifts in mood communicate much more than the uncontroversial fact that people are complex: total existential frustration is, in fact, LP1’s unifying theme.
Any successful, forward-looking work provides a welcoming through-line of convention, which the artist goes on to subvert with every turn. In this case, twigs’ superb vocal melodies anchor LP1’s flights of experimentation. Were they to be stripped from the album’s bizarre flourishes and dropped into a commercial R&B context, they would stun nonetheless. This isn’t to imply that LP1is impenetrable, as its highlights make crystal clear. “Closer” recapitulates and builds on LP1’s ethereal opening track, to wonderful effect. True to its name, “Pendulum” swings back and forth along with Barnett’s couplets, atop a graceful bass line, subdued drum-machine taps, and warm synth tones. Lead single “Two Weeks” reaches multiple, glorious peaks before twigs gets to sing her best lyric: “Motherfucker, get your mouth open, you know you’re mine.” The object of that imperative sentence might as well be us, her rapt listeners.
Vacant space is as much twigs’ signature as is the backwards, then forwards, then upside-down, then inside-out contortion of percussive patter and vocal overdubs, that electron cloud of noise, skittering and flashing in an out of existence, weaving around her upper-register melodies (so wistful, so sensual). LP1 doesn't often assert: it suggestsand whispers. Of what? Of a faintly lit bedroom; a mind alone with itself; a battered heart, tired of bruises; and above all this, a starving soul blazing with isolation. When LP1 does declare, that sonic cloud snaps into full clarity. A thrill then follows, the recognition that you’ve experienced something new and rare and wondrous. On “Hours,” twigs asks “Am I suited to fit/ all your needs/ master of all your needs?” It's a question that requires no answer. A