FKA twigs review – visually intoxicating comeback show

Alexandra Palace theatre, London
In a dazzling yet oblique set that embraces ballet and swordplay, FKA twigs shows no sign of pursuing mainstream stardom

Since the start of her career, FKA twigs – less a singer than a very modern sort of audiovisual artist – has drawn on ballet and R&B, on fetishism and body modification. But nothing this outre tunesmith has done – not even her recent comeback single, Cellophane, and its eye-popping pole-dancing video – can quite prepare you for the start of this visually intoxicating comeback show.

Appearing in front of a lush red velvet curtain, the woman born Tahliah Barnett is dressed like a Venice carnival souvenir, tap dancing to a series of jazz scats. Sometimes she responds move for beat, sometimes it’s more abstract. Baffling, impossible to parse, this is a great attention-grabber. You are expecting one kind of weird from FKA twigs, and you get quite another. Later on in the set, one of these rhythmic themes will recur in some of the songs she’s performing for the first time.

Previously staged in Los Angeles and New York, her Magdalene tour – named after an unreleased song on an album we assume is coming – is hosted for one night only in this recently reopened, atmospheric Victorian space. The theatre had been mothballed for decades, and is reborn a strange, half-finished neoclassical space where uplit statuary and double-height ceilings magnify the resonance of this visually intoxicating set. At the start, disembodied vocals, culled from her song Mary Magdalene – “a woman’s touch, a woman’s work” – nod to Kate Bush and This Woman’s Work.

A singer of not-quite-R&B, Aaliyah via Björk, FKA twigs has an enviable vocal range. Tonight, as she roams through her Mercury prize-nominated 2014 debut, LP1, its follow-up EP, M3LL155X, and a great tranche of new music, she tops off at a tremulous dog-whistle frequency, and bottoms out at a contralto ache. But she began her career as a dancer, and still leads her art with a sinuous physicality. The word “gig” doesn’t quite do this interdisciplinary series of sung tableaux justice; it’s like an Instagram feed gone live, mixing high fashion with intergalactic stripclub vibes and a deep well of female sorrow.

FKA Twigs Performs At Alexandra Palace Theatre

Although she has an ardent fanbase of cognoscenti, FKA twigs is more widely recognised for being half of a former celebrity couple. (Her ex, Robert Pattinson, was the star of a vampire-themed film franchise; she is actually far more otherworldly.) She has not done any explicit interviews around her new material, but you can’t help but suppose that the breakup of her three-year relationship – one lived in the goldfish bowl of celebrity, and in which she served as a lightning rod for the racist attitudes of some Twilight fans – might find emotional expression in her new work. Indeed, LP2 looks as though it is shaping up to be FKA twigs’s Vulnicura – the Björk album in which the Icelandic auteur processed her breakup from her long-term partner.

Little in this grandiose, oblique show actually matches the opening dance for sheer jaw-dropping wonder; a few scenes come close and one transcends it. First, there is a lot to process. Songs from the first album unfurl with stately froideur and a dancer’s restraint; the curtain parts to reveal more curtains. She seems alone, singing as though to backing tracks; but the gig is really a series of reveals. She swaps her microphone for a sword, and stage-fights an invisible presence. One of the downsides of this ambitious, but highly stylised, show is how the music seems to serve the pictures she wants to make, rather than the other way around. Dancers appear; later still, when curtain after curtain falls, a three-piece band is revealed on some scaffolding – two operatives at banks of digital gear and a cellist, the nerve centre of this operation.

Watch the video for Cellophane by FKA twigs.

Halfway through the set, the new material finally debuts. Mary Magdalene finds her enunciating crisply, more Judy Garland than Aaliyah; multitracked vocals eventually take the song polyphonic. For Home With You, her look channels something of a nomadic tribeswoman on her wedding day; she ministers to a person in the front row, presumably in an echo of Jesus’s girlfriend. A devastating new song, Mirrored Heart, is one of the set’s most affecting. She asks a series of rhetorical emotional questions, and ends up staggering around, falling violently to the floor, picking herself up, and falling again: it looks painful. It ends with her singing a cappella, snuffling, at times almost sobbing. You can hear a pin drop before the crowd shouts its encouragement.

Last year’s collaboration with A$AP Rocky, Fukk Sleep, hinted that she might be heading in a more commercial, US direction, ready to parlay her arty notoriety into something actually resembling proper fame. But these new songs are often slow and piano-led; accessible, but not particularly mainstream and not that far removed from her compositions of old. There is a shift happening, moving FKA twigs’s emotional centre of gravity from her sexual presence to something infinitely sadder and, perhaps, more interesting. Big drum sounds combine with amorphous digital menace, and effects-laden strings have something, unexpectedly, of Sigur Rós about them.

FKA twigs demonstrates her swordplay.
FKA twigs demonstrates her swordplay. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

FKA twigs’s X-ratedness remains, but it is transformed. For Lights On, an oldie about having sex with the lights on, she is stripped to a bikini and pole-dances as she does in the Cellophane video. For all the pole’s unsavoury connotations, however, FKA twigs’s athleticism is the point here: having undergone surgery for uterine fibroids last year, her physical recovery is central to this comeback.

For Two Weeks, another old song, she is transformed again, wearing a Marie Antoinette-style bustled gown that looks as if it has been made from men’s shirts. The costume design here alludes to Vivienne Westwood, a visual influence: FKA twigs collects vintage Westwood and recently performed Cellophane at the Wallace Collection in central London, a museum whose 18th-century artworks have inspired Westwood’s designs. Glitter falls.

When it comes, the mournful piano ballad Cellophane is delivered as an encore at the lip of the stage, with the red curtain once again shut behind her. “Didn’t I do it for you,” she begins, “Why don’t I do it for you?” In the video, the song’s meaning is clear: look at this cool, bendy goddess you are spurning.

Sung straight into a microphone, the emphasis shifts anew, with the final lines seemingly addressing the pain of a relationship in which fans are the third party in the engagement. “They’re waiting, they’re watching… and hoping I’m not enough,” she sings, abjectly, the online mob putting paid to her love. In turn, her dancers mob her, and, as the curtains shut, she disappears into a group hug.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
FKA twigs: Caprisongs review – party tunes and hard-won notes to self
The left-field singer makes a bid for the mainstream with hook-centric pop that centres on self-knowledge not trauma

Kitty Empire

15, Jan, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
FKA twigs: Magdalene review – inner battles that will stay with you
(Young Turks)

Emily Mackay

10, Nov, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Dua Lipa: Studio 2054 review – a celebration of up-close disco joy
The British pop paragon tops off a triumphant year with a dance-party live stream complete with Kylie, Elton John and a pole-dancing FKA twigs

Kitty Empire

06, Dec, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
FKA Twigs: LP1 review – barely-there R&B reaches ecstatic new heights
FKA Twigs's hotly anticipated debut is a compelling masterclass in millennial sex-angst, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

09, Aug, 2014 @11:47 PM

Article image
Sault: Nine review – a masterclass in anger and balm
The enigmatic collective’s fifth album in two years is another masterclass in confounding expectations

Kitty Empire

03, Jul, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
Beyoncé: Renaissance review – a breathtaking, maximalist tour de force
The superstar’s seventh solo album is a kaleidoscopic barrage of disco, soul, house and dancehall that puts other post-pandemic party albums in the shade

Kitty Empire

06, Aug, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Lizzo review – like downing a quadruple espresso martini of female self-reliance
The Glasgow-loving US star’s whip-smart extravaganza of glittering sisterhood is an irresistible showcase of hits and positivity with just a hint of pop juggernaut

Kitty Empire

11, Mar, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Khalid review – teen spirit squandered?
Khalid’s meteoric rise from high-school student to stadium-filler has seen him spread himself too thinly and lose the edge to his heartfelt songs

Kitty Empire

21, Sep, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
Haim review – sisters doing it for each other
Olympia theatre, Dublin
The California siblings shrug off a dose of flu with a summery set of repartee and word-perfect singalongs

Kitty Empire

17, Jun, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Mabel: High Expectations review – something sassy this way comes
Eschewing her uber-cool heritage, Mabel serves up chart-friendly pop and R&B on her debut album

Kitty Empire

03, Aug, 2019 @1:00 PM