FKA Twigs' Subtle Spirituality
“When you give yourself away, it always hurts too much,” FKA twigs sings on her latest single, “Good to Love.” “So you pray to get it back / Only God can give you that.” The way her tone shifts and rises when delivering the latter sentiment makes it sound like the singer, born Tahliah Barnett, is passionately delivering a very important lesson. Coming less than a year after 2015's glitchy, robotic five-song EP M3LL155X, on which she wrestled with sinister themes of dominance and submission, the bare-bones piano ballad “Good to Love” feels unusually low-key for the musician. It’s maybe the most accessible song FKA twigs has ever released, moving with an organic, airy quality, as if we’re hearing her voice captured in a crystal-clear bottle. “Good to Love” also outright celebrates a sense of deeply earnest, hand-to-the-heart spirituality that FKA twigs has been exploring under the surface of her music for years.
As a teen in Gloucestershire, England, FKA twigs began her musical career singing hymns in her Catholic high school's choir and writing music at a local youth center studio. And while she's rarely addressed her religious preferences since becoming famous, her music and aesthetics frequently reflect a sort of ambiguous spiritual devotion. “In my mind, eternal darkness, seemed like it was true,” she sings on LP1’s “Closer.” “My savior knew / I was weary, I was sleepy, but you held me through.” In one 2014 interview, twigs said the song is about building a relationship with a better version of herself, but also about building a better relationship with God: “Even if you’re not religious, if you don’t believe in God or you haven’t worked out what you believe in quite yet... I believe that being a good and kind person is some sort of higher energy within myself.” The song plays like a Gregorian chant as Barnett sings of devoting a lifetime of love to her subject. Similar themes and sounds echo through the ghostly, choir-like, Puritanical mantra of the same album's “Preface,” on which she repeats “I love another, and thus I hate myself” – a line from the 16th-century Thomas Wyatt sonnet “I Find No Peace” – over and over in layered vocal tracks, making her singular voice into that of many.
On other songs, she’s the religious idol in question, a goddess of mythic proportions. “I am an angel, hush now,” twigs sings on “Figure 8,” one of M3LL155X’s vogueing anthems. “My back wings give the hardest slap that you’ve ever seen.”
On LP1's breakthrough single “Two Weeks,” Barnett sings from atop a metaphorical (and in the video, literal) throne as she tantalizes a lover who sounds more like a sacrificial offering ripe for mutilation than a casual fling: “You’re the only one who resonates / That chaste mouth open like high!” Her vocals punctuate every word with a strong pause, and she breathily swings “high” up into her highest register like she’s setting the lyric free from a cage. On M3L155X's “Glass & Patron,” by contrast, she rejects the idea of making celebrities into idols, of worshipping their movements like a religion. “We wait all week to hear gods talk / When you’ve got a front row seat to the stars,” she sings with her voice sped up like a cartoon character.
In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, FKA twigs expressed a frustration with critics' tendency at the time to sort her music along with artists like Kelela and Miguel in the vague genre known as “alt-R&B.” She says when she first released music and nobody knew what she looked like, they considered her genre-less. When her pictures came out, suddenly the mixed-race artist became an “R&B” singer. “I share certain sonic threads with classical music; my song ‘Preface’ is like a hymn. So let's talk about that,” Barnett says. “If I was white and blonde and said I went to church all the time, you'd be talking about the 'choral aspect'. But you're not talking about that because I'm a mixed-race girl from south London."
FKA twigs isn’t one to assign herself to any institution. The ballet school dropout often talks freely in interviews (and her music) about her terrible past as a backup dancer in mainstream pop music videos. She thinks her music is more punk than R&B. And yet, Barnett’s music frequently makes use of the language and iconography of one of the world’s oldest institutions: Christianity. Her music and videos pull from the Baroque fine art tradition of over-dramatizing faith using the body, where religious ecstasy is a source of both pleasure and pain. “I want it to feel physical, like it’s in your body, because that’s how I feel,” Barnett said of her music in an interview with Complex. She rewrites St. Paul’s decree that “women should remain silent in churches” by pulling from medieval choral tradition. She hears herself in the poetry of Thomas Wyatt, who was imprisoned for allegedly committing adultery with Anne Boleyn in a very Catholic, pre-Reformation England. When her songs romanticize the ideas of isolation and pure hunger for love, they can sound strangely similar to the kind of hymns that Martin Luther wrote and Bach would later use in BWV 686.
There’s no denying that FKA twigs’ music, with its roughed-up “Papi Pacify” brand of eroticism, is deeply sensual. But it's possible to read much of her music as religious testimony, where the music is not directed at a lover but instead at a much higher power. If twigs has made any genre of music alternative, it might very well be classical religious music, not R&B. But critics don’t frame her work in those terms. “It doesn’t do justice to my work!” FKA twigs said of songs like “Closer,” that have religious roots but get interpreted as being merely sexual. “People could perceive ‘I want to be closer to you’ as ‘I want to have sex with you’, but that’s not what it is.” Granted, Barnett could be playing with us on purpose. By making music and visuals that tackle desire in both sexual terms and religious ones – in ways that can parallel the work of Madonna circa "Like a Prayer", Lady Gaga, and Jenny Hval – she seems to highlight the fervor with which people perform devotion for God.
But “Good to Love” is by far the most overtly religious song FKA twigs has ever put out. And there’s a tenderness to this single that feels like newfound territory for her exploration of romantic and religious devotion. Where most of FKA twigs’ music has kept her in what has always seemed like an unbearable purgatory of anticipation for love and for sex, on “Good to Love” her position isn’t submissive. Yes, she may insist she deserves to feel pain, but Barnett, with her voice surprisingly un-manipulated, sounds like she is actually being heard by someone who wants her heart as much as she wants theirs. “Good to Love” puts the ways in which twigs' music turns to God front and center, using aesthetic and spiritual means that pull from fine art and Christian tradition. So, in Barnett’s own words: Let’s talk about that.