FKA twigs With Boots Trees, Dallas Friday, November 28, 2014
Some see FKA twigs as the savior of R&B. At the very least, some kind of futurist shape of the genre. Others see her as simply a revamp of trip hop, an anachronistic innovation come full circle. And at least one overly exuberant critic has deemed Twigs "the next Kate Bush." Publications, fandom, the ever-churning hype machine: All paint Twigs as a weird, avant-pop auteur, a figure capable of fulfilling the promise of strangeness that other pop stars only hint at in their fashion choices, but fail to translate into their own art.
However, the experience of seeing her live in Dallas at Trees on Friday, or even just a few listens to Twigs' music, gives the lie to this notion. This isn't experimental music, or edge-seeking radicalism. It's pop, pure and simple. Credit the artist for never giving credence to the cursory aesthetic assumptions hurled upon her.
Twigs approaches pop with an emphasis on deconstruction, silence and stark contrasts. Hers is a music of few elements, minimal in a spidery, staccato way, with each component cleaved to sound like marble or glass. It's astonishing, really, how her tracks recycle the bones of one another.
In fact, at a distance, they all appear to be assembled from the same lot of colors, ranges and effects: A slather of reverb here, a sluggish breakdown there, filled out with skittering drum machines and watery synth lines. From a strictly sonic perspective, the result of this sparsity is an astonishing transparency of structure. Of course, once Twigs enters into the equation, things get more interesting.
And enter she does.
To a deafening blare of cheers, from behind a haze of blue, FKA twigs emerges. Bathed in a machinery of soft, inhuman light, she begins a performance that validates her inclusion in all discussions of important contemporary musicians. With her wormy contortions, Twigs exploits each angle of the Trees' stage, looking every bit the surreal projection she embodies on video. Her demeanor is unblinking, seamless. She moves like she has oil for blood, joints of rubber.
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Born Tahliah Barnett in rural South West England, Twigs began her career as a dancer, supporting herself mostly by way of backup appearances in other artists' music videos. It's evident from her performance tonight that she's retained that mode of professional distance, the art of theatre and role-playing.
Twigs is an island, she's just a few feet away from her rapt audience, but she might as well be miles removed from all of us. If her music is about any one thing, it's this: displacement. Fortunately, her manner of expression is as accessible as it is sensually complex. It's in her drugged-down tales of longing that her art blooms most fully. Here's where the R&B comparisons make the most sense. In FKA twigs, R&B finds an eccentric, modern container, one more successful at imparting the genre's pained romanticism in our post-idealistic age.
Each track tonight translates beautifully. Most songs are one-to-one renditions of material from her last two releases, EP2 and recent full-length debut LP1. At times, the songs are punctuated with additional electronic quirks, a distended synth sustain, or exaggerated smatterings of clockwork percussion. The production's minimal bent is a welcome knee jerk in the opposite direction of R&B's typically distasteful lushness.
This arty punch-and-move approach to composition (courtesy next-gen producers Arca and Clams Casino) is contrasted with a lyricism that's anything but unusual. Typical pop tropes -- unfulfilled desire, sexual prowess, romantic insecurity -- stand in stark relief to the music's comparatively abstract instrumentals. The success of Twigs' art comes down to how she balances these two elements: uninhibited melodrama and forward-thinking musicality. The resulting dynamic is less a justification for the necessity of drastic change in modern pop and R&B than a validation of the enduring power of traditional song form.
Twigs briefly breaks character at the end of her set to speak candidly with the crowd. She thanks us for the enthusiasm and for our warm embrace. It's a bit jarring, actually. Just moments before she was this eerie figure, oozing sexual imagery and bold vulnerability, blinders on to everything but the present moment of her performance. Now she comes off mousey, soft-spoken, even brittle. There's an unmistakable disconnect exhibited by this interlude -- between Twigs the person and Twigs the artist -- which serves to explain the dissociation felt in much of her music.
Isn't all great art an attempt to communicate? The greatest being that which succeeds in so doing. In modern experimental music, the message is often one of chaos, writ in cacophony or roughened maximalism; in contemporary pop, it's usually euphoria, expressed with hooks or glowing melodies. Twigs falls somewhere in between: Not novel, not quiet radical, neither mostly visceral nor conceptual. But she's a master at communication.
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The dialogue she imparts concerns the age old hardship of being human in the face of emotional detachment. We all need affection, we all want more of it. In one way or another we've all been victimized by an exodus and are now looking for comfort: A new home, whether that be found in a partner, or simply social or cultural acceptance.
With each song, each inflection, each liquid maneuver she displays tonight, Twigs expresses her desires for human connection and the dissatisfaction she experiences in attempting to actualize them. There's a universal, if myopic, purity in that sympathy. What's more relatable than that?
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