Miracle Maker

FKA twigs performing at Red Bull Music Festival New York 2019 at the Park Avenue Armory on May 12.

THE LAST TIME I saw FKA twigs was almost exactly five years ago, also as part of the Red Bull Music Festival. That was Congregata, the elaborate, sinuous show she put together to support her debut, LP1. Congregata was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, of any kind. The artist spent the next few years mostly away from the public eye before returning with Magdalene. When the performance finally began (almost an hour late), a prerecorded intro played as twigs appeared alone in front of the curtain and started wordlessly tap-dancing. It was unexpected and hypnotic. Then the curtains parted to show billowy backdrops, pale blue with clouds. Halfway through the production, this scenery fell to reveal an industrial structure with platforms and a three-person band.

Congregata was a dark, throbbing journey to the future’s coolest nightclub, neon and strobe-lit, The Matrix meets Paradise Garage. Magdalene is a more ethereal creation, powerful and dramatic but light, almost fragile. The show centers more clearly on twigs herself; it’s less like a spectacle and more like that Greek myth where Actaeon is turned into a stag after stumbling across the goddess Artemis bathing naked in a glen. The skittering rhythms and washes of synth are still there, but the vocals are higher in the mix, the lyrics more audible, the stage brighter. There’s a cello. The show has a deliberate emotional arc: It’s not operatic enough to have surtitles and a libretto, but there’s clearly a painful breakup involved. Twigs bookends the performance with material from LP1, but at its heart is an extended section of new songs, presumably from a forthcoming but unannounced album. Congregata was thick with sex and longing; in Magdalene only the longing remains, along with a sensuous desire. “Didn’t I do it for you?” she pleads in “Cellophane,” her tremulous, slow-burning new single. “Why don’t I do it for you? Why won’t you do it for me, when all I do is for you?”

The constant was twigs’s voice, soaring effortlessly across four octaves. The sound was fantastic. The outfits were iconic. I’m glad the Park Avenue Armory never responded to my request for a press ticket, or I might have accidentally ended up in the sterile, security-guarded bleachers all the way at the back of the Armory’s gigantic Drill Hall. Instead I was close enough to appreciate the meticulous, remarkable details of the performance, from the elaborate pleats and fabrics of the costumes to the very real tears during the last of the new tracks—an emotional peak just before the return to more familiar material.

The set closed with the heart-wrenching one-two punch of “Two Weeks” and “Cellophane.” On LP1 and in the song’s video, “Two Weeks” is almost unbearably seductive. Here it was reborn as a song of loss, its imagined future revealed as a false promise and an untenable hope. As the song ended the curtain fell, and after a moment, twigs stepped in front of it to perform “Cellophane” with only the echoing sound of a piano to accompany her. Then she was gone.

FKA twigs performing at Red Bull Music Festival New York 2019 at the Park Avenue Armory on May 12.

Biblical title aside, Magdalene’s aesthetic touchstone is the Baroque: in the color scheme, in the costumes, and in a nimble, emotive cast of four dancers serving Marriage of Figaro realness. Congregata had a strong vogueing component, down to an extended performance segment by Leiomy Maldonado and other New York legends. The new show leaves behind the nightclub but not the ballroom; Magdelene draws instead on the culture’s more elaborately ruffled and feathered side, but filtered through Twyla Tharp’s choreography for Amadeus. Oh, and with just a little bit of meticulous kung fu swordsmanship, two raised fingers and all, only slightly marred by the floppiness of the plastic sword she pulled out from behind a curtain. The swordplay, like the tap dancing, is one of several moments that in less capable hands would seem affected or even silly. There’s also a breathtaking pole dancing routine that circulated widely on Twitter following twigs’s performance in LA. But twigs’s grace and commitment can sell any flight of fancy. The show is airy, flowing, and emotionally vulnerable, but only through careful, well-rehearsed rigor. In the aesthetics and clockwork precision, there were echoes of Madonna’s 1991 Versailles-themed VMA performance and her 1993 Girlie Show.

Live presentation has been a problem for electronic music since Kraftwerk took their first joyride on the Autobahn: How do you take tracks made by one or two people with a computer and make them interesting for a crowd of people watching a stage? Light shows and choreography have become de rigeur, but twigs follows in the exploratory tradition of Björk and Róisín Murphy, who not only push the boundaries of electronic music in the studio but also bring those albums to the stage through beautiful, elaborate live shows that blur artistic disciplines and breathe three-dimensional life into the sonic possibilities of the digital.

That kind of creative vigor isn’t cheap. If Björk has responded to the problem by gouging fans on ticket prices and Murphy by stripping down her show and playing smaller venues, twigs placed herself at the Venn diagram intersection of the Park Avenue Armory and the Red Bull Music Festival, two of the more interesting forces in New York when it comes to giving concept-oriented artists big budgets and lots of leeway. It’s a good place for her. The Drill Hall has surprisingly good acoustics; the massive stage is almost big enough to contain her talent; and the audience gets a show that probably wouldn’t be technically feasible in a smaller, traditional space. If I was that kind of asshole, I might be tempted to call it a Gesamtkunstwerk. I’ll satisfy myself with a less deplorable turn of phrase and say that Magdalene is fucking awesome.

FKA twigs played Red Bull Music Festival New York 2019 on May 11 and May 12.