I’m sure you’ve noticed: pop music has gotten a lot weirder. And when I say music, I mean music. Come to think of it, basing your look on an Egyptian goddess crossed with a Japanese doll draped in early ‘90s clothes isn’t all that shocking, especially when paired up with lines about jealousy, lust and rejection. Teaming up with some of the world’s most out-there producers (Arca, Sampha) for a major music release (read: stuff that sells), and subsequently ditching a whole bunch of tried-and-true ideas about verses, choruses, and arrangements might just make the cut. And FKA twigs is not alone at this game. You can blame James Blake for the warning shot, but his debut LP was rather a symptom than a progenitor; a conspicuous sign of what could easily be the overarching influence of modern electronic music on pop, a backlash against the retromania-fueled impossibility of coming up with anything new, or – most likely – both (and plenty more). At any rate, futurism and eccentricity have now graced the songwriting realm of pop music as much as its pop-cultural halo.
In case of Tahliah Barnett a.k.a. FKA Twigs, that kind of change had to come gradually. After a professional career as a backup dancer for the likes of Kylie Minogue and Jessie J, the Gloucestershire, England-born singer and producer debuted with an EP under the stylized name twigs (FKA stands for “formerly known as”) in 2012. It was a professional-sounding collection of intriguing yet restrained songs, fresh but still very much trying to recreate a certain moment in pop music’s history: that being UK’s trip-hop explosion of the early nineties. Tracks such as ”Breathe,” for which Twigs made the first of her long string of captivating videos, relied on the kind of nocturnal beats-and-voice chemistry championed by Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird on the seminal album Maxinquaye. Beautifully put together, but nevertheless a throwback, and that coming at a time when the indie audience was getting increasingly bored with throwbacks.
In hindsight, Barnett’s sophomore EP, 2013’s Water Me, was the true making of her; it opened up her sound to out-of-the-box EDM influences, with its four tracks sounding less like pop songs and more like background music to performance art. It also helped unravel Twigs now-unsheltered self; not of a packaged hipster but an individual with an all-encompassing vision. It was on Water Me that FKA Twigs’ persona was born: paradoxically unpretentious and meticulously chiseled, extra-human, post-human, unhuman and human all at once. If on her first EP she was largely an anonymous performer/producer, Water Me saw her genius and oddity become the focal points: from the alienish long-necked cover pic to a deliberately prominent position of twigs’ chameleonic vocals in the mix.
In this context, on LP1 she is the sole ruler of a universe she kindly invites us (and her collaborating producers, also including Lana Del Ray’s Emile Haynie and big-timer Paul Epworth) to take a peak into. Musically, the album is a stately-yet-gracious collage of cut-up idiosyncracy, accessibly avant-garde and pleasantly unique. While twigs’ otherwordly charm draws you in immediately, the musical layer of the album requires multiple listens to wrap your head around. The most stunning sonic quality of the album is how it never resorts to recognizable instrumental pairings, fusing seemingly disparate sounds in a way that breathes fresh air into the mix but also, weirdly enough, adds harmony to its arrangements. You wouldn’t really expect a double bass in the otherwise synthetic “Lights On,” and backing it up with 21st century musique concrète (a sample imitating a car alarm going off) takes eclecticism to a whole new level. The LP is also replete with manufactured sounds that replicate non-synthetic situations, like the construction-site meets creaking wooden boat deck ambience of “Pendulum” or the enraged cicada cacophony of “Two Weeks”.
“Two Weeks” deserves a mention all to itself. The album’s first single is also its most accomplished composition, one that illustrates straightforwardly what makes the entire album work so well. Barnett was born on the same day as Aaliyah, and here the cosmic connection comes to light. “Two Weeks” is not just the album’s most R&B moment, but it’s also the kind of R&B that Timbaland would easily get behind: sonically complex and somewhat counter-intuitive, but coming across as catchy, almost effortless. The song’s many starts, stops and unexpected instrumental drops suggest a rather cerebral listening experience, but through a balanced execution “Two Weeks” becomes an infectious hit. A comparison with slightly less engaging, Emile Haynie-produced “Give Up,” which (aside from the Burial-esque specter in the background) reads more like a run-of-the-mill ’90s neo-soul track, shows just how much inventiveness helps FKA Twigs’ case. The uniqueness of her music strangely makes it more, and not less, open-door and listenable.
In other places, the experimentalism hits so hard that it attracts for sheer novelty value itself, like in “Pendulum,” a track that puts caroling-like chants atop crackly negative space and pairs up amelodic verses with an uncharacteristically anthemic chorus . Trip hop, twigs former forte, resurfaces briefly in “Numbers,” which beautifully takes advantage of that one metallic cheap-Casio-keyboard preset you never had an idea how to use effectively in a song, and then fuses 80s electro-funk with brainy IDM. Last year, Jensen Sportag were doing it on Stealth of Days (check out “Rain Code” for a neat LP1 blueprint) but anyone hardly noticed; this year, it’s hard to think of a hipper and more ambitious sound-collaging than their (and Sampha’s, who produced twigs’ track) approach.
Debates on web 3.0 feminism, human interaction in the age of the hashtag, and the exact amount of sexuality in twigs’ lyrics have dominated the discussion around her first LP, just like around the music and videos she’s put out earlier. The truth is, however, that we wouldn’t be having this conversation if her image and message weren’t just an engrossing addition to the captivating, envelope-pushing, and wholly original piece of art she has made with LP1. I wouldn’t be surprised if LP1 aged incredibly well, and years from now enjoyed a similar reputation to Bjork’s Homogenic. After the retro-obsessed 2000s and its 5-minutes-of-fame bands, it appears we are back at that promising moment in the late 1990s when the future seemed to be at our doorstep. It might be wearing a somewhat strange costume, but it’s finally arrived.