FKA twigs: M3LL155X

Photo by Tim Snow

The success of FKA twigs says as much about shifting public tastes as it does her unique style.

FKA twigs


Label: Young Turks
Release Date: 2015-08-13

It’s an interesting statement on musical evolution that today’s mainstream pop often sounds identical to the experimental noise bands on those cassettes I used to order in junior high, out of photocopied mail-order catalogues from obscure European labels. The experimental music of that era would rarely even make it onto late-night college radio; today it receives over a million YouTube hits in a week.

The success of FKA twigs purports to have caught the music industry off guard, but it’s not rightly as surprising as one might think. Like any movement, the undercurrents and undertones were there for years; her success is partly twigs’ own talent and artistic courage, but also the product of a listening public whose tastes have finally evolved to handle the sonic dissonances that experimental and noise musicians have been playing with for decades. What startles is not so much the unexpected success of her sound, as its remarkable similarity to the artists on those late 20th century cassettes, now long forgotten if indeed they were ever known in the first place. Sounds have changed perhaps -- to the finely honed art of sonic dissonance twigs brings a uniquely R&B angle -- but more striking is that tastes have changed too. Shifting public tastes are an important part of the story here, and heavily implicated in the success of twigs’ music.

Hints of the style’s emergence into the mainstream have been there for years: the growing focus on increasingly abstract and experimental vocalizations; the growing irrelevance of tune and rhythm. Music has gradually become subservient to the artist’s vocalizations, while the thematic coherence of those vocalizations takes second place to the dripping power of emotion and scale centred around the enunciation of each and every syllable. Songs are increasingly left behind in today’s pop, consigned to the realm of the singer-songwriter. The success of FKA twigs marks a punctuation in that long and painful process. This is what dream-pop musician Tamaryn describes as the “dadaist era of pop music where everything is becoming less and less musical and more and more conceptual and art-based.”

There’s something of our cultural era in this. Forget wit or stylistic virtuosity: today’s television drama is marked by an almost over-the-top focus on densely dramatized, if increasingly sparse, dialogue. The camera zooming in on the twitching muscles of a chiseled jaw as a key character prepares to speak; the moment of hanging drama indelibly drawn-out; the lingering shot of a furrowed gaze; the tension rising in tune with the soundtrack; and then the utterance of a single trite, over-dramatized line. And pan back to the next character, and repeat. Today’s pop has become the musical equivalent. It’s not about appreciating the complexity of a song; not about the rise, climax and denouement of a systematically articulated theme. Instead it’s about the vocal crescendo; the dramatic shift in tone; the single low isolated beat that emerges for ten seconds; the crescendo that shatters the silence. Gone is the era of following a single idea from start to finish; instead we are become an era of moments, punctured by instants, sliding into more moments. It’s not a bad thing – every era has its style - but it’s worthy of reflection. It’s a style twigs has mastered in full form on her newest EP, M3LL155X (pronounced 'Melissa').

"Figure 8" opens with the full suite of twigs’ trademark style (insofar as such a style can be said to be a trademark). There’s a weaving of high-pitched vocalization, layered over and under and through layers of instrumentation. The musical side of the track is comprised of carefully balanced interventions that are carried by the vocals, rather than vice versa as in traditional pop music; a millefeuille montage of sonic harmonies.

"I’m Your Doll" carries the listener into more dissonant, experimental territory; here the vocal power of the track takes precedence over instrumentation. Part of FKA twigs’ unique talent lies in her ability to know how to carry the listener through this style of pop. The dissonance of "I’m Your Doll" merges into the more stable opening synth rhythms of "In Time", briefly returning the listener to a stable point of musical reference before fragmenting once again into the fluid dissonance of sampled vocal layers manipulated with deft and gentle skill, the synth rhythm still hinted at underneath it all, just when you think it’s been forgotten.

Likewise, "Glass & Patron" returns to a predominantly dadaist, vocal zone, alternating between twigs’ famous whispered tones and her high-pitched vocal utterances; instrumentation and music deployed gently and sparingly. In this space, music is the aberration. The listener catches hold of twigs’ voice and follows it through a hyperreal obstacle course where music is the distraction, and the reward lies in following twigs’ vocalizations as they shift and rise to the next level; then rapidly descend into whispered cadences before beginning a dramatic ascent up the vocal scale once more. Her voice is the prize; the listening experience a roller-coaster ride through the full range of experimental electronics that poke and jab at it from the sidelines.

The final track, "Mothercreep", returns to a more stable zone, discernible lyrics laid over a carpet of gently swelling rhythms.

A lot has been written already about the video film which accompanies this EP, and especially its feminist messaging. The most striking part of this is often ignored: the opening three minutes featuring Michele Lamy, elderly jeweled fingers weaving in a wrinkled, vague and creaky approximation of the tightly choreographed vogueing twigs will pick up later in the piece. The entire film engages with ideas of birth and creativity, but it’s the subtleties that matter here: opening with an elderly woman; a dancefloor runway in a darkened woods where dancers’ hip-hop moves are more horror than hip. The underlying message throughout remains that Figure 8 -- symbol of eternity and rebirth -- as twigs, in the closing piece ‘Mothercreep’, comes to terms with her own understanding of being the ‘alpha female’ in her world. In an interview with Complex, she described the track as an apology to her mother.

The effect of the album is soothing and challenging all at once; full of complex messaging yet equally suitable as backdrop for studying; worthy of lingering concentration on each and every note or dozing off to on an airplane. But then, isn’t that what pop music is?


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.