Cultivating a sense of mystery can be a useful ploy for a new artist, but it can also be treacherous. You can hide the mundane clutter of life – real name, place of Earth birth, human parents – behind opaque drapery but there’s the risk that once the truth is extracted, the audience will feel they have somehow “solved” the puzzle and move on, as if the person in question were merely a walking, talking sudoku. FKA Twigs has been harder to work out than most. Since her self-released 2012 debut, EP1 – each track accompanied by its own video – the facts of her existence have slowly been verified. Her name is Tahliah Barnett, she was raised in Gloucestershire, she’s a trained dancer interested in both ballet and krump, yet her powerful visual identity combined with an intergalactic take on future-facing R&B, post-dubstep and ’90s trip-hop have kept her mystique intact, even when it was revealed she was a dancer in the videos for Jessie J’s Price Tag and Do It Like A Dude. That’s some mystique.
“An intergalactic take on future-facing R&B, post-dubstep and ’90s trip-hop.”
The question is whether these 10 tracks (promisingly, none have been released previously and all were created in the studio for added spontaneity) can maintain and develop her modish aura. In a digitally manipulated world, the visuals Twigs generates – often in conjunction with artist Jesse Kanda – have been essential in building her profile, following the body-shocking tradition of Chris Cunningham, Aphex Twin or Björk. She’s expressed her contempt for the “beauty myth” on Twitter and there’s something of the dancer’s physical bravery in the way she presents herself. In the film for EP2’s Papi Pacify, a man repeatedly pushes his fingers into her mouth while she stares out inscrutably; for the same record’s Water Me, she became a saucer-eyed anime doll. The cover for LP1 is equally striking, showing Twigs as a waxen mannequin. Is she becoming more or less like a flesh-and-blood person? A real human girl or Pinocchio in reverse?
On the evidence of LP1, the former – a little disappointingly – wins out. Compared with her more extreme work – the mangled chants used on her video of krump crew Wet Wipez, the whispered Weak Spot from EP1 – here her voice is often sweet and blossomy, gently drifting down over her songs, softening the edges. While that’s vital for the space-suited Janet Jackson coo of the Arca-produced Lights On or the choirgirl delirium of Closer, it can overpower the detail: Pendulum’s industrial clatter; the hollowed-out, deconstructed stadium house of Two Weeks; the time-and-space snapping beats of Hours. It becomes too rich, too smooth, too much.
Yet when voice, words and music balance, the pH corrects itself. Often, these songs appear to deal with the search for a safe erotic space. “When I trust you we can do it with the lights on,” she sings on the lithe glitch-pop of Lights On, while the defiant Kicks asserts, “I just touch myself and say I’ll make my own damn way.” These are songs that hint at everyday negotiation and compromise, about holding it together on unsteady ground, a state echoed by the Tricky-like depth-charge blips of Numbers, or the way Video Girl – The xx with heavy concussion – slows to a disembodied sludginess, as if the effort involved in fighting on has become too much. Even at its most vulnerable, however, LP1 is a hugely self-possessed debut, the work of an artist whose vision – not only her visual sense – is strong. The mystery surrounding FKA Twigs might be lifting, but the story is far from over.