In her second studio-length album “MAGDALENE,” cross-genre artist FKA twigs employs her emotion-laced voice as a medium for self-reflection, dancing between genuine emotion and cliched heartbreak.
The album’s title alludes to the biblical figure of Mary Magdalene, who is one of Jesus Christ’s most prominent disciples historically portrayed as an emotive, repentant witness to his trial and crucifixion. In FKA twigs’ album, Mary Magdalene is used as a channel for and token of the artist’s expression of personal pain and suffering. In this way, the obvious use of Mary Magdalene as an emblem feels a little banal — but maybe this straightforward affinity to the biblical figure serves to emphasize the album’s aim to be emotionally frank.
“MAGDALENE” is most certainly what would be described as a “labor of love.” In a press release, describing the emotions that propelled the album, FKA twigs stated, “I never thought heartbreak could be so all-encompassing. … The process of making this album has allowed me for the first time … to find compassion when I have been at my most ungraceful, confused and fractured.”
The instrumentation, vocals and production in “MAGDALENE” reflect this amalgamation of spirituality and raw emotion. From the chorus’ Gregorian chant-esque singing in “fallen alien,” to extraordinary orchestral flourish in “cellophane,” FKA twigs echoes a kind of religious air in exploring emotional suffering and growth. In “home with you,” she sings, “But I’d save a life if I thought it belonged to you / Mary Magdalene would never let her loved ones down.”
According to the album’s liner notes, the album was co-produced by a number of artists like Nicolas Jaar ’12, Benny Blanco and Daniel Lopatin, who goes by the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never — all of whom influence the album’s electronically inventive sound. And the album’s greatest strength lies in its versatile, constantly shifting instrumentals, which oscillate between cinematic classical compositions and trap-influenced trip-hop, like in “holy terrain” which features the rapper Future. Through this versatility, the album finds a number of ways to express emotional weightiness.
What is most thought-provoking, however, is what “MAGDALENE” says about the relationship between femininity and art. In relying on Mary Magdalene as a recurring symbol, is FKA twigs purposefully exercising the device of female suffering and martyrdom, knowingly leaning into the cliche of female heartbreak? If the motif gives into the cliches that seem impossible for women in the industry to avoid, does this invalidate FKA twigs’s candor?
In answering these questions, it is important to acknowledge that musical works by women are frequently unfairly pigeonholed into the tired genre of “music by women.” In “MAGDALENE,” FKA twigs’ musical and emotional narrative seems to teeter on the line between submitting to the gratuitous trope of female suffering, and practicing the agency to do so without being polemicized. In her song “Mary Magdalene,” FKA twigs sings, “A woman’s work / a woman’s prerogative / A woman’s time to embrace / She must put herself first.” This last line indicates that FKA twigs performs emotional fragility fully conscious of the thin line between creative freedom and the tired trope of female martyrdom — and in this consciousness, the album succeeds in finding personal, independent musical catharsis.