FKA twigs’s Magdalene Is an Overwhelming Depiction of Triumph

Perhaps you heard that FKA twigs made a record about her break-up with actor Robert Pattinson. The two beautiful, enigmatic stars were together for several years and were, at one point, rumored to be engaged. And while many of the songs on the 31-year-old’s magnificent second LP, Magdalene—her first release since their split—do wrestle with a ravaged heart, you heard wrong. Magdalene is about exactly one person: the British-born singer Tahliah Barnett, aka FKA twigs.

The album, in fact, begins with the end: “If I walk out the door it starts our last goodbye,” she intones in the cadence of a priestly chant over a delicate piano-backing accentuated by the echoes of a gong on opening track “Thousand Eyes.” “If you don’t pull me back it wakes a thousand eyes.” What follows is a striking, defiant, knotty, and occasionally distressing journey through herself; a complete emancipation from her previous sound, romance, and relationship with her body. It is the path to, as she incants on the hymn-like intro to “Mary Magdalene,” discovering a new reality: “a woman’s prerogative,” she practically whispers, “a woman’s time to embrace/she must put herself first.”

Following a buzzy couplet of EPs, twigs’s formal introduction came in 2014 with the futuristic LP1. The 10 tracks of twitchy electro—a cacophony of stuttering drums, car alarms, and brittle beats, all draped in her nymph-like vocals—announced a new avant-garde powerweirdo in pop. And while she maintained such stylings through her 2015 mixtape M3LL155X, earning rave reviews and ever-growing crowds, Barnett eventually began to feel trapped creatively. “It felt like I’d made this ornate golden birdcage,” she recently told the Guardian, “and everything was so intricate—like tapestries and beading and beautiful wire work. And I stepped in and I locked the door and I was like, oh my gosh, this is actually a nightmare.”

Just one song made it to the album from this era: “Daybed,” a ballad about finding a rare break from a paralyzing depression in sexual self-pleasure. A new direction arrived as she teamed up with experimental electro-psych producer Nicolás Jaar. The two connected in late 2017, writing “Cellophane,” the album’s piano ballad closer, which also served as the set’s lead single, during their first meeting. The most sparse, straightforward song of her career, it’s three minutes of gut-punching vulnerability. “Didn’t I do it for you?” she pleads with the memory of an ex, her voice the centerpiece of a song for the very first time. “Why don’t I do it for you?”

The breakthrough was short-lived.

In December of that year, while still dealing with the demise of her relationship with Pattinson, twigs underwent surgery to remove six fibrous tumors from her uterus. The growths were the size of two cooking apples, three kiwis, and a couple of strawberries. They were “a fruit bowl of pain everyday,” she wrote on Instagram, revealing the operation several months later. “I tried to be brave but it was excruciating at times and to be honest I started to doubt if my body would ever feel the same again.” For an artist whose first creative love is dance, the time spent flatlined in recovery was both physically and emotionally distressing.

“I never thought my body could stop working to the point that I couldn’t express myself physically in the ways that I have always loved and found so much solace,” she wrote in a statement introducing the new LP. “I have always practiced my way into being the best I could be, but I couldn’t do that this time, I was left with no option but to tear down every process I had ever leant into.”

Her rebuilding is spellbinding. Together, she and her collaborators—Jaar, who dots the album’s credits as both a producer and cowriter, songwriting powerhouse and label boss Benny Blanco (Selena Gomez, the Weeknd), Cashmere Cat, Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde), Skrillex, frequent cohort Arca, and more—craft an undeniable account of perseverance. At its darkest, it’s an entrancing testimony to the overwhelming powers of anger (“Fallen Alien”), loneliness (“Home With You,” “Mirrored Heart”) and self-doubt (“Cellophane”). But the set doesn’t wallow. It’s just as much a recognition of realized self-worth (“Holy Terrain,” which includes a syrupy feature from Future) and hope (“Sad Day”). Unflinching in its feeling, Magdalene is intimate and expansive, all at once.

She and her producers feed her stories through the sounds of tomorrow, where stoned beats, foreboding distortions, atmospherics, and wind chimes reign supreme, but much of twig’s singing draws on yesterday. Floating between chants, hushed whispers and hymn-like melodies, the album often feels like a desperate prayer, said a million times before, flung towards the sky. At times, like on the standout “Mirrored Heart” she soars over the track. But at others, as she does on “Home With You,” she folds the sounds behind her into her notes for moments of true, all-encompassing catharsis. The interplay dazzles—the results aren’t just holy, they’re downright heavenly.