“I’m still a mysterious being,” teases FKA twigs in the opening bars of her new mixtape, CAPRISONGS. “Wanna get some of my mystique?”
The problem is, 33-year-old Tahliah Barnett has been trading on the sexy-strange mystique of her alien styling and glitchy-wonk sound for a decade. It’s still appealing, but I wonder – listening to CAPRISONGS’ conventional narratives of romantic confusion and getting stoned on the motorway – if I’m the only fan who feels frustrated that her music isn’t pushing harder at the weird boundaries with which she flirts.
Once you get over the (unrealistic?) expectations of unearthliness, though, CAPRISONGS delivers an often exquisitely crafted sequence of grooves. It takes time for them to sink their melodic hooks, but your attention is paid back in kind. Mostly written and recorded over lockdown, the 17 tracks are elegantly laced together by twigs’s sad angel voice, then livened up by an eclectic cast of collaborators including The Weeknd, who laments her dancing him “out of my hips, my thighs… my late night cries” on single “tears in the club”. Rising British-Gambian artist Pa Salieu adds a deep revving rap to the addictive “honda”, punching out a one-two rhythm: “Ba-by/ we can/ roll it/ smoke it/ on the m-way…”
Along with the guest stars, twigs soaks up influences from around the world. She has fun bouncing more exotic sounds off the tough Britishness of grime beds and glottal stops. At times, CAPRISONGS feels a bit like following the singer down a London street on a rain-drenched night, watching the lights from clubs, bars and takeaways distorted in puddles beneath her heels. Ripples of deep, shuddering bass disrupt the fluid grace of harps and choral arrangements. The effect of moving through a loose-lipped crowd is enhanced by snatches of recorded dialogue between songs. Women seek credit for their work and roll their eyes over commitment-shy men, who ”don’t even recognise the worth in themselves”, to which those guys respond, “Only the strongest survive.”
Opener “ride the dragon” has an East Asian tang with wooden flutes and slow-twanged lily blooms of guzheng set afloat on pools of dirty bass. Twigs’s vocals may be rice paper delicate, but her words are direct: “I been slippin’ through the city lookin’ pretty with nobody to get on/ So if you wanna kiss me do it quickly, before the end of this song.” She channels her Jamaican heritage on “papi bones”, a brass-backed Caribbean party track on which Blackheath-born rapper Shygirl joins her to celebrate with “champagne bubbles”. London gets its shoutouts on “darjeeling”, where twigs references Crystal Palace and her old school, Croydon College; Mercury Prize-nominated Jorja Smith hangs out to sing the hook from Olive’s Nineties club anthem “You’re Not Alone”. On “which way”, we’re invited to enjoy a dubby slice of “elevator music that takes you to the 50th floor” as twigs and east London’s all-female band DYSTOPIA discuss Twitter and gender equality.
Twigs second album, 2019’s MAGDALENE, dealt quite explicitly with her break up from actor Robert Pattinson. Those looking for the inside track on her relationship with filmmaker Shia LaBoef (whom she is currently suing for sexual battery, assault, and infliction of emotional distress) won’t get many details on CAPRISONGS, but the scars can be felt throughout. Reclining on a bed of prettily vocodered sighs for “meta angel”, twigs explores the confusion and self-doubt caused by gaslighting. Against the crimped beat of “oh my love”, she complains of a lover “pushing me, pulling me, killing me”. It’s slightly troubling to hear her encouraging a lover to “be careless with me” on “careless” with Canadian artist Daniel Caesar. But its wonky carousel organ drives one of the project’s most beautiful melodies, over which she assures us: “I’ve got a safe word, it’s OK…” The Bjorkian meander of “minds of men” finds her inviting a man to “take off your heavy crown, I’m gonna love you soft”. And she’s at her “Cellophane” rawest against the muffled piano and squiggly synths of closer “thank you song”, on which she expresses gratitude to those who supported her when she “wanted to die”.
Given time and careful attention, CAPRISONGS unfurls to reveal the richest and catchiest melodies twigs has written so far. Its mystique melts into you.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247, or visit their website here