On her early EPs and LP1, FKA twigs' Tahliah Barnett expressed the intersections of love, pain, fragility and strength with remarkable eloquence. While making Magdalene, she embodied them. Not only did she endure the end of a long-term relationship, she had surgery to remove six large uterine fibroids (colorfully described by her as a "fruit bowl of pain"). These events became the heart of her second album, which uses the duality of Mary Magdalene as a lens for its wounded yet resilient feminine energy. An herbalist and confidante of Jesus portrayed as a prostitute in the Bible, Mary Magdalene's gifts were overshadowed by her ties to a great man. Barnett digs into and subverts this relationship on Magdalene, most prominently on "Holy Terrain," a dramatic, erotic duet with Future. While she wonders if she'll ever find a man who can support her the way she's supported men in her past over its trap beats, warping metallic tones, and Bulgarian folk chants, the way she's assisted on the track by A-list co-producers like Skrillex and Jack Antonoff -- as well as by Future's repentant bars -- is a small step in the right direction. On "Mary Magdalene," she draws on both sides of her archetype, bridging women's sensual and healing powers with a heroic dose of independence.
As she hones Magdalene's themes, Barnett broadens her music. Handling most of the production herself, she uses her signature bone-rattling beats more sparingly to clear space for melody and, especially, her classically trained voice. There's a dewdrop purity when she sings "Would you make a wish on my love?" on "Sad Day," one of several songs where she evokes Kate Bush's poignant magical realism. On the aching "Mirrored Heart," she stretches to her highest and lowest ranges to encompass the magnitude of her loss. Barnett matches the directness of the album's music with impressively naked -- and often uncomfortable -- emotions. "Apples/cherries/pain" she growls on "Home with You," where her physical and emotional suffering merge in seething distortion and throbbing beats that isolate her from someone dear until she realizes they're lonely together. Inadequacy, whether it's in the eyes of a lover or the world, is a major motif: The beautifully nightmarish "Thousand Eyes" is steeped in anxiety that churns in its spiraling pianos and when Barnett sings "It's gonna be cold out there with all those eyes" in an anguished soprano that could cut glass. Later, she plays with these feelings on "Cellophane," whispering "Why don't I do it for you?" with equal amounts of melodramatic flair and heartbreaking realness. This complexity extends to "Daybed," a slow spin of feelings -- sorrow, weariness, peace -- that are equally soothing and suffocating. At once more delicate and more concentrated than any of her previous work, Magdalene is a testament to the strength and skill it takes to make music this fragile and revealing. Like the dancer she is, Barnett pushes through pain in pursuit of beauty and truth, and the leaps she makes are breathtaking.