Park Avenue Armory, New York, May 11, 2019
If it’s been three years since your last live performance and, until recently, as long without any new music, there’s some expectation for your return to be something special. Luckily FKA twigs, the genre-defying south Londoner who’s been pulling us into her artful and bewitching world since 2012, is the kind of artist who making a big impression comes naturally too. With her new Magdalene show (brought to New York for the Red Bull Music Festival), she builds a breathtaking journey that feels at times more like an avant-garde dance piece than a pop show.
As the crowd filters into the yawning Park Avenue Armory, they’re bathed in blue light, soft drones coming through the speakers. The stage is presumably in front of us, although it’s so untouched by the light that it could just as easily by a black hole. When the show begins, it’s revealed to be a black curtain, in front of which twigs appears dressed in a black-and-white ruffled outfit, tap dancing wordlessly before the elastic ripples of ‘EP1’ track ‘Hide’ float in.
Minutes later, twigs has disappeared again, only to re-emerge in an eruption of strobing lights and a feathered hat that’s somewhere between Victorian lady off to the races and being invited to sit on a cloud as fluffy as those on the banners behind her when passing through the pearly gates. More familiar songs follow – first ‘Water Me’, then ‘Pendulum’ – both performed with the singer as the lone figure onstage, shrouded in plumes of dry ice.
Harsh industrial buzzes signal the arrival of ‘Figure 8’ and, with it, the first glimpse of twigs’ four dancers for the night. They appear at first on her right, dancing around her, before stepping up and surrounding her, looking as if they’re about to face off to an invisible foe in a dance battle. Later, they form an arched formation for the first new song of the night, arms raised as they sit and stand, taking up space until their leader returns from her second costume change of the night.
The first taste of new music of the night is quiet, beautiful; stammering, jittering beats and skeletal melodies letting twigs’ voice take main focus. In semi-choral tones, she whispers about “a woman’s war”, adding later: “Yes, I heard you needed me/Yes, I’m here to open you/Yes, I know that your heart is blooming.” A couple of songs later, her dancers reappear with masks for one of the most beautiful, moving songs of the night; a piano-led piece that finds twigs crying: “I didn’t know that you were lonely.”
For a performer whose live vocals have been criticised in the past, tonight she sounds heavenly and in control, any cracks in her voice only adding to her emotion. In the last new song of the night – another track dominated by stirring piano – she builds from soft delivery to huge, heaving sobs, almost yelling out the line “It’s for all the lovers trying to fuck the pain away.”
As well as new songs, there are stunning moments of artistry between the choreography. At one point, twigs pulls a sword from between two drapes and begins an intricate dance, blade waving. Before a brief version of A$AP Rocky collaboration ‘Fukk Sleep’, the cloud-adorned banners that have been hung behind her drop to reveal a three-piece band and her dancers staring down at the crowd from scaffolding. As we re-enter familiar territory at the end of the set, its from that structure of metal that the star pole dances to ‘Lights On’.
As ‘Two Weeks’ comes to a close, a burst of confetti falls from the ceiling and the curtains close once more, leaving twigs alone in front of them. ‘Cellophane’, the first single taken from her upcoming second album, begins as the shiny pieces are still fluttering down, flickering like fireflies as they catch the light. The beauty of the scene takes on a desperation seconds later, though, as the returning musician stands barely moving, detailing a tale of a love that didn’t work out. With each sigh of “Didn’t I do it for you?” she sounds more desolate than the last; closer to tears each time. Throughout the show, there are several moments that could reduce you to a bawling mess, but its not until its all over and twigs utters her first spoken words of the night that everything really hits – as if her steady “Thank you so much” slices open the walls of the world she’s created in the show to reality, opening up the flood barriers in the process.
After three years away, twigs returns as you would expect – still following her own path and making everything she does feel like a work of art. Album two can’t come soon enough.