Present Continuous

The British singer, dancer, producer, video maker and gratification-delay expert FKA twigs, née Tahliah Barnett, sweats the details.

By: New York Times | Published: January 10, 2015 3:23:31 am

Album: LP1

Singers: FKA twigs

Banner: XL Recordings

Price: Rs 1,396 (On Flipkart)

Rating: ***

All those years in isolation/helped me want for you,” FKA twigs sings in Closer, a track deep into her first full album, LP1. Like a lot of lines on the record, these can be understood in three ways: a call to an old lover, a plea for spiritual salvation, or a credo of the young perfectionist artist facing a new audience. Or perhaps in one big way: transformative desire, private and public, in body and soul, in real life and metaphor.

The British singer, dancer, producer, video maker and gratification-delay expert FKA twigs, née Tahliah Barnett, sweats the details. She has been extraordinarily self-controlled in terms of her artistic presentation: two EPs of spare, intense, weird songs that seem to stand still while moving; disjunctive but tight-focus videos; a few performances. But also full of seductive and rigorous intent, high and serene, implying much and holding much back.

Even so, the twigs starter years, 2012 and 2013, seem to recede in the light of LP1 (Young Turks), an album that feels, at its sporadic best, like a staged alien landing. On the album cover, her girlish, disappointed face looks paint-bombed, or rendered in polyurethane; in the trippy video for Two Weeks, she plays both queen and multiple supplicants in a slow-motion Egyptian-palace tableau, singing ravenous sexual claims; in the album’s first song, Preface.

Barnett has written and produced her songs with the help of various collaborators from commercial pop’s front lines, including Arca, who worked on Kanye West’s Yeezus; Emile Haynie, who contributed to hits by Lana Del Rey and Bruno Mars; and Clams Casino, who has been associated with ASAP Rocky and Lil B. But there seems to be no question about her artistic control. These songs are similar to her earlier work: slow and spacious, full of shuddering vocals, with beats that countermand one another or vanish as soon as you clamp your ears on them. And buried details, like the alarm siren that emerges only in the last 20 seconds of Lights On.

It could be thought of as R&B by those whom her singing suggests: Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Janet Jackson, Madonna in her quiet upper-register period. She’s also comparable to other current singers who are fighting their own battles with the conventions of R&B: SZA, Kelela, the Weeknd, Tinashe and Sampha. But all of them have a little more respect for the contours and conventions of the pop song.

At the very least, LP1 isn’t dance music. Barnett sounds as if she’s trying to do something possible only by a leap of the imagination: fix some particular quality of a moving art form; make it halt and burn into the sense memories and become permanent; substitute constant tension for the power of a pop song’s payoff or release. And sometimes, this drive makes her music austere and draggy. She’s an able vocalist, but not one with much flexibility or range; her breathy, piccolo-tone singing is so rhythmically gridded that it might as well be Catholic liturgy.

What moves LP1 ahead from her earlier work is that some of these new songs rise above a single musical conceit. They contain more recognisable sounds, like the sustained piano chords and quiet-storm guitar strokes on Pendulum or the acoustic bass on the chorus of Lights On. They use chords to help them develop form, and sometimes elements of traditional pop-song narrative to achieve untraditional ends. The best songs — Two Weeks, Pendulum and Closer — keep the record in your ears beyond the pleasing strangeness of the
initial encounter.

A record this laboured over deserves to be heard in full. But its dramatic slow drip becomes wearying; you will get the point quickly. Pop music, shallow or restrictive as anyone might think it, tends to imitate the fullness of anyone’s lived experience; it tends to give you narratives, humour and sadness, ballads and bangers, highs, lows, slow and fast. It’s in the avant-garde where certain dispositions are held steady and explored in depth, and that’s where this record lives.

These songs seem to address the listener in a strange and contradictory way, directly and abstractly. You’re tempted to ask the record what it wants from you. I have still not found the right situation to listen to it. Or unless I can hear it in a setting where the daily hustle has no place. A cave, maybe. Or a Sunday Mass.

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