B. Michael Payne can feel it in the air
Style, emotion, and sex form a close nexus around music, but they’re not music itself. Judged on the rich presentation of these concepts, FKA Twigs debut album, LP1, is a clear winner. The timelessness or quality of the music itself is a murkier thing to judge.
In 2012, emerging from some notice as a background dancer, Twigs released a debut EP and four music videos to accompany each of the tracks. Each video features a character, invariably center of frame and doing little, while an accompanying soundscape and some haunting vocal phrases recur. EP1 makes for somewhat thin listening, but as an audio-visual experience it’s got an uncanny power.
On the strength of “Water Me”, from Twigs’ second EP, the dancer-singer-video maker garnered immediate and widespread acclaim, leading to a stunning set at the 2014 Pitchfork Festival. The superb video for “Water Me” is an almost unbroken long shot close-up of Twigs’ face. The only filmic tension that occurs is the subtle enlarging of Twigs’ already pretty large eyes as the video proceeds. Much like the song itself, it has the effect of turning the experience back at the listener, placing the responsibility of longing and connection on the viewer’s willingness to engage.
Twigs replicated the success of “Water Me” with LP1‘s debut single “Two Weeks”. Like “Water Me”, “Two Weeks” is sonically built on an echoey witchhouse foundation rattled by booming sub-bass and punctuated by Twigs’ pretty, plaintive keen. The video for “Two Weeks” doesn’t necessarily deviate from the template of continuous long shots centered on her striking figure, but it does receive the same baroque painting treatment that made Kanye’s video for “Power” so grand. The image of a painting come slightly to life (replicated endlessly online through animated GIFs) is perhaps overused but suggests something about peoples’ attentiveness and attraction to eeriness.
This semi-tangent on Twigs’ videos is simply to make the point that as an artist, she tends to focus on one thing and engages the listener to focus unwaveringly on it, as well. Twigs’ songwriting is at its very best on tracks like “Two Weeks”, where she builds layer on layer (again, like a painter creating an ideal color) while conforming roughly to a verse-chorus-verse structure. When the middle eight snatch of vocal melody shines through like a laser beam through dense smoke, the effect is climactic.
Elsewhere on the album, when Twigs’ stasis-locked songwriting fails to find memorable melody or much of a chorus, the album can feel oppressive and smoldering, like being chained to a ship’s deck in a tropical doldrums. That may be the intended effect. LP1 has a crystalline and delicate feeling, comparable to Björk’s Vespertine, but it doesn’t have the latter’s tendency toward tenderness. Instead, there’s an often frantic attitude on the album. Twigs is a good singer, and the production plies her voice like a whipcrack, mascara smudge, or chorus of angels depending on the desired effect. The autobiographical “Video Girl” has a strong vocal hook, which is used early and often, though the song skitters along dirgelike. “Closer” has a church chorale vibe befitting its devotional subject matter, though it lacks transcendent majesty settling for repetition. The entire second half, in fact, moves through moods and set pieces but nothing quite reaches the complexity or heights of “Two Weeks”.
With production from Arca, Clams Casino, and Sampha (among others), LP1 sounds awesome. This is something of a double-edged sword, though. Great production can lift otherwise mediocre performers like The Weeknd and Autre Ne Veut to popular heights that their talent and songwriting just doesn’t merit. (Conversely, stodgy production has probably been the main reason why pbr&b has utterly supplanted conventionally ‘better’ r&b in online discourse.) The gorgeous sound of LP1 masks many of its shortcomings: mainly, sometimes boring, unimaginative songs that rely on style, emotion, and an ineluctable sexiness to keep them in your mind long after their melodies (what melodies there are) are forgotten.
As the spartan nature of Twigs’ naming conventions may suggest, the audio products of EP1, EP2, and LP1 are a little spare and perhaps fungible, five day emotional forecasts that are subject to change. The au courant production implies that this too will pass. FKA Twigs’ has developed considerably in the first two years of her music career. As her songs find firm ground, her prodigious talents should manifest in more memorable ways.