“Mary Magdalene Would Never Let Her Loved Ones Down”


The release of “cellophane” was more than just an artist releasing a single—it was an event. Marking the end of a three-year hiatus, FKA twigs wasn’t exactly enjoying her time away from the spotlight; she was suffering from six fibroid tumors that had grown in her uterus, which came with immense swelling and agonizing pain. It was a period of her life plagued by heartbreak, hatred and massive attention for her shattering engagement with actor Robert Pattinson. The toll all of this took on twigs’ health wasn’t realized until the public was hit by “cellophane” and its stunning video, where twigs bares all and majestically pole dances—a talent she spent over a year honing for the sake of this video—to what is arguably the strongest song of her discography. 


And this is interesting because the single was also a step away from the dense, experimental R&B from her past work. It isn’t like Barnett wrapped herself in cellophane, but there’s little more than a four-note piano melody to back her raw vocal delivery and cutting lyrics, which question “Why don’t I do it for you? Why won’t you do it for me when all I do is for you?” It’s so emotionally potent it makes me want to avoid seeing Pattinson’s new film “The Lighthouse” so I don’t put money into his pockets. It almost always brings me tears.


Barnett has always been more likely to be decked out in extravagant production, surrounding herself in atmosphere, distortion and electronically tinged sounds in a way that feels artificial yet oddly human. Through these sound pallets, she created a lane for both herself and the entire genre of alternative R&B with her first two EPs and breakout 2014 debut “LP1.” In retrospect, it seems hard to argue against the idea that everyone making experimental R&B in 2019 is in some way in debt to twigs and her forward-thinking work. Her 2015 EP “M3LL155X” (pronounced “Melissa”) set this in stone and proved that not only are her contemporaries in debt to her creativity, but also yet to catch up both in songwriting and ear for collaborators. For example, while Kelela put a completely different spin on the sound with her bold 2017 debut “Take Me Apart,” it’s hard to imagine a record even as groundbreaking as that existing without twigs. 


But “LP1” came out five years ago, and “M3LL155X” just turned four. Half a decade is a lot of time between records, especially in the internet age. Whatever twigs has kept us waiting for has given us enough time to throw her to the back of our minds, even if just for a moment, and when she came back with “cellophane,” there was an excitement in the music community similar to that of when she broke out onto the scene.


During this time, Barnett found parts of herself through the story of the biblical figure Mary Magdalene. Often wrongfully considered to be a prostitute, a falsehood addressed by Pope Paul VI in 1969, Magdalene is a woman whose reputation has been marred by misconceptions for centuries. As stated in an interview, “I started to read about Mary Magdalene and how amazing she was; how she was likely to have been Jesus’s best friend, his confidante. She was [an] herbalist and a healer, but … her story is written out of the bible and she was ‘a prostitute.’ I found a lot of power in the story of Mary Magdalene; a lot of dignity, a lot of grace, a lot of inspiration.” She sees this inspiration as relatable to many women and stated that after her dramatic period, she began to see that many women have had similar stories. “I see her as Jesus Christ’s equal,” she stated.Throughout the record, twigs works through the many personas of Magdalene, finding herself in the process.


The album“MAGDALENE” sees twigs stepping away from alternative R&B to embrace a more hard-to-pin-down sound. While the R&B isn’t gone, it’s more buried by art pop and classical influences than ever. There are more producers on here than “LP1”—big names including Nicolas Jaar, Cashmere Cat, Skrillex, Sounwave, Kenny Beats, Oneohtrix Point Never, Benny Blanco and others—with Twigs, like always, dipping her hands in almost every sound, masterminding the project from beginning to end.


As one of the first full songs with production credited to just twigs herself, single “home with you” portrays two opposite sides of emotion with its filtered, guttural verses contrasted with one of 2019’s most captivating choruses. As frustration takes over the verses, the chorus switches, and twigs sings, “I didn’t know that you were lonely. If you’d have just told me, I’d be running down the hills to you.” It leads up to a cinematic, tear-jerking, immense ending—an explosion of strings, synths and what sounds like a chorus of wind instruments topped with Barnett’s stunning falsetto. It’s truly so beautiful that I can’t imagine one listening to it without having any sort of emotional reaction.


The community was, and still is, divided on “holy terrain,” an intense, minimal trap song featuring Future that matches transcendence with sexuality. It’s not only the closest we get to the old twigs, but also the most commercial she has ever gone, and in this case, that’s far from a bad thing. It’s not a catchy, house-party banger, but it’s as infectious and hypnotic as both a good twigs and Future track. It’s proof that even if she chooses to “sell out,” as many have accused her of doing with this song, she would do so tastefully and artfully.


This twist on trap is a vibe that continues into “mary magdalene,” with Cashmere Cat listed as a co-producer. While the opening is incredibly bare bones, following a lush introduction, the track slowly evolves from an operatic acapella to a dense bed of instrumentation. Its chorus, in an odd way, resembles that of a Panic! At The Disco song, only tasteful in its impact. Lyrically, this is the deepest the Mary Magdalene concept is taken. 


And while this is a fantastic take on a commercial sound, it still comes in second place to “sad day,” with its moody piano chords, skittering percussion and layered vocals that deliver some of the sweetest, or most bittersweet, lyrics on the entire project. It depicts the slow demise of a relationship in a way that feels hopeless yet numb, as if Barnett’s pain has added up to nothing but expectations of the worst.


But even with these relatively immediate tracks, “MAGDALENE” is still rich in moments that transcend genre and accessibility. “thousand eyes,” an extended opener that makes up for its length with gorgeous operatic vocal passages and thick production, shows how terrifying being in the spotlight can be, how a thousand eyes are there to watch twigs and her partner as their relationship crumbles. “fallen alien” again creatively introduces chorus vocals, only, this time, their effect is more scary than stunning.


“Mirrored heart” the last emotional highlight before the closer. With its ’80s-esque filtered guitars, pianos and stabs of synths, it’s an incredibly unique and well-constructed ballad. At times, its songwriting feels like an old jazz or baroque pop standard; yet, it is easily the most cutting song on the project next to “cellophane.” According to Barnett, she often finds herself crying while performing it on stage, and you can hear the hurt in its melodies and vocals. It’s as straightforward as it is beautiful, with the chorus singing “I’m never gonna give up, though I’m probably gonna think about you all the time. And for the lovers who found a mirrored heart, they just remind me I’m without you.”


Immediately following, “daybed” is the record at its most meditative. With production handled by Oneohtrix Point Never, it’s an enveloping bed of ambience that evokes a warmth akin to that of Björk’s “Vespertine,” like being wrapped in a bed of sound as Twigs cradles you to sleep. It’s a great predecessor for “cellophane” closing the record perfectly. With all of the perspectives and emotions presented on the previous eight tracks, “cellophane” is the raw, unfiltered expression of everything we’ve just heard, like a final punch in the gut.


And that’s essentially what “MAGDALENE” is: one punch followed by another. It’s a reconstruction of an artist, of a person ripped apart by the world and left to rebuild herself. That is exactly what Barnett did, evolving from the dramatically made-up woman on the cover of “LP1” to the orange monster on the cover here. In her own words, “Mary Magdalene would never let her loved ones down,” and if FKA Twigs is truly channeling Magdalene on this record, she certainly did not let us down.