FKA twigs used to exist in the background. For years she worked as a dancer, appearing in the videos of prominent artists from Kylie Minogue to Jessie J. Now, following the swelling of a tide of interest both online and in print, her star has risen, and she is finally visible for all to see. She has appeared in a lustrous cover for Dazed, and undergone the obligatory Pitchfork interview. The Fader, Crack and the Guardian have all been singing her praises. Many might say she’s ‘made it’; but some of us are still wondering who she really is.
Perhaps what is so intriguing about her is that this is still difficult to discern. Even her name (Formerly Known As twigs, when spelt out in full) only really allows us to see her through the frosted glass of a previous guise, keeping her real self at a distance, denying us intimacy. The cover of LP1 follows the trend. She demonstrates a beguiling ability to hold our gaze without deigning to look back, appearing simultaneously close-by and heart-achingly distant. There’s no fierce stare into the lens, no one shouting ‘work it!’ behind the camera – that would be far too passé. What we’re given instead is a glazed stare at an unspecific point in the middle distance, an image which snugly fits the millennial condition – angsty and unconnected - more Tao Lin than Taio Cruz.
The cover is the perfect casing for an album which thrives on ambiguity, carving out a space for itself somewhere between control and submission, lust and love, longing and belonging. The lyrical content and tone flit between binary oppositions throughout, casting herself one moment in the dominant role and next in the passive. In the video to ‘Two Weeks’ she literally plays both, sitting majestically on a throne whilst dolling out milk from her fingers to a dancer, scaled-down and super-imposed beneath her, played again by herself. The underlying eroticism of the album is teased out and spurred on by this capricious interplay, it is never one-dimensional, but always as captivating as it is confusing. ‘Why does an individual have to be either dominant or submissive?’ She seems to be asking. Can’t we be both at different times, or, indeed, at the same time?
In Lights On, the album’s most infectious, masterful, ambiguous song, she offers everything, promising vulnerability whilst withholding commitment. (‘When I trust you we can do it with the lights on/ When I trust you we’ll make love until the morning/ Let me tell you all my secrets in a whisper ‘til the day’s done). By Numbers this offer of honesty is replaced by anxiety, (‘Was I just a number to you?’), and the album’s closer Kicks resolves that, to put it in a prudish and coldly clinical way, self-reliance is adequate: (‘When I’m alone/ I don’t need you/ I love my touch’).
FKA twigs worked with some accomplished names in the production of this album, notably Sampha and Hudson Mohawke collaborator Arca. Their contributions no doubt enhance the sound, but the tone throughout is coherent and distinctively hers. The decelerating breakdown in Video Girl resonates with the slowing pace of previous track Hide – this is the same twigs as caught the world’s attention with her previous EPs. The sound of the album is consistent enough to bind together without ever descending into repetition: the key to this is the dextrous control of space and silence. Snares fill, synths descend as quickly as they erupt, beats flutter, all bound together by the glue of Tahliah Barnett’s voice which, though delicate, achieves total control and requires little consistent accompaniment.
The album cannot easily be categorised. The almost hymnal opener, Preface, which draws aptly from the pen of the Elizabethan poet Thomas Wyatt, is not just a gimmicky ‘intro’. The choral quality returns in Closer. Far from being a genre-piece, this is a small-scale encyclopaedia of individual experience, it is inconsistent but coherent, as messy as real-life. For now let’s resist the urge to categorise FKA twigs as, for example, ‘alternative R&B’. Let’s instead celebrate her individuality and her work so far in producing one of this year’s most beguiling works.
Words: Francis Blagburn