August 2014

Arts & Letters

Ghosts of R&B past

By Anwen Crawford

FKA Twigs. © David Burton

Timbaland and Boyz II Men haunt FKA Twigs’ ‘LP1’ and How To Dress Well’s ‘What Is This Heart?’

A spectre is haunting contemporary pop music – the spectre of Timbaland. America’s R&B super-producer – real name Timothy Mosley – is still very much alive, but his astonishing work at the millennium’s turn with artists like Missy Elliott, Aaliyah and Ginuwine hovers in the atmosphere. Its futuristic promises have not so far been improved upon, not even by Timbaland himself. Timbaland took the plush exterior of R&B and stripped it bare; his audaciously minimal arrangements twitch and stutter, suggesting the distracted, nervous disposition of the digital habitué a good ten years in advance of the smartphone. His chief protégé Aaliyah, who might have been bigger even than Beyoncé, died in a plane crash at the age of 22, after filming a video clip in the Bahamas for ‘Rock the Boat’. Produced by Timbaland, the song was released after her death in 2001.

‘Two Weeks’, the lead single from FKA Twigs’ debut album, LP1, released this month, exists in the long shadow of Aaliyah and Timbaland’s collaboration, and in particular their 1998 song ‘Are You That Somebody?’ Despite – or more likely because – of that debt, ‘Two Weeks’ is surely one of 2014’s best songs. The music moves like a sliding puzzle, set in motion by thunderous, rolling kick drum and shot through with snare patterns, with openings in the sound where you couldn’t have quite predicted them to be. Like Aaliyah before her, FKA Twigs sounds best when the sweetness of her soprano is offset by a pronounced syncopation, and her voice here is layered so that multiple Twigs seem to be singing against one another.

Whole phrases occasionally gleam through the vocal stacking. “Motherfucker, get your mouth open / You know you’re mine” is one, though it’s hard to be sure. “My thighs are apart for when you’re ready to breathe in” is another. ‘Two Weeks’ is a success because of the confidence with which it embraces both pop songcraft and eroticism, while rendering each as a surprising, capricious force. If only the rest of LP1 met the same standard.

FKA Twigs, born Tahliah Barnett, is a 26-year-old British musician and dancer who began attracting notice in late 2012 when she uploaded her first recording, EP1, to the music streaming website Bandcamp. A series of striking videos, one for each track on EP1 and its 2013 follow-up EP2 (Twigs’ titles are nothing if not functional), was made available on YouTube. FKA Twigs is as much a visual as a musical project. Her early songs were highly reminiscent of Tricky, one of British music’s most taciturn yet brilliant figures. ‘Weak Spot’, from EP1, shares Tricky’s whispered delivery and paranoid atmosphere. ‘Ache’, from the same release, has a cut-up vocal track that renders an otherwise banal lyric – “I ache for you” – as a mechanical tic, as if desire were the result of a glitch in the body’s central processing unit.

This melding of human and machine has, until now, been central to the FKA Twigs aesthetic. ‘Water Me’, the stand-out track from EP2, borrows its main vocal effect – a series of staccato vowel sounds – from Laurie Anderson’s landmark work of avant-pop, 1981’s ‘O Superman’. The video, in turn, references Sinead O’Connor’s iconic performance in ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (1990), though the tear rolling down Twigs’ cheek is digitally animated, and the proportions of her face grow more unreal as the video progresses. “He won’t make love to me now / Not now I’ve set the fee,” she sings, sounding like an abandoned automaton. “He told me I was so small / I told him ‘Water me’.” The song, produced by the Venezuelan-born, New York–based Arca, manages to be aloof and vulnerable at the same time: Arca brought a similar combination of qualities to his production work on Kanye West’s Yeezus.

The bulk of LP1 leaves FKA Twigs stranded somewhere between the stark idiosyncrasies of her early songs and a more generic pop sensuality. Her breathy vocal tone suggests sadness and pleasure simultaneously, but the weaker tracks on LP1 fail to press on this nexus. ‘Hours’, with its refrain “I could kiss you for hours”, could have been vampiric but instead is merely downcast. Aaliyah, who played the vampire queen Akasha in the cult horror flick Queen of the Damned, released six months after her death, still reigns over this R&B underworld.

Tom Krell, an American musician a few years older than FKA Twigs, has recently released his third album under the moniker How To Dress Well, What Is This Heart? “Worn upon my sleeve” is clearly Krell’s answer to that question. Since debuting in 2010 with the album Love Remains, How To Dress Well has performed an emotional transparency that is either totally sincere or utterly cynical, or both.

It’s hard to imagine How To Dress Well in any era but our own. His music is a ghostly amalgam of R&B influences that relies on collective memory to activate its power, and where FKA Twigs has used her online presence, particularly her videos, to cultivate a more old-fashioned, star-in-the-making mystique, How To Dress Well shares and over-shares via the feedback loop of social media. What he seems to give of himself, emotionally, his fans give back to him, with added interest.

The best track on Love Remains was ‘You Won’t Need Me Where I’m Goin’, which is not much more than a vocal line surrounded by digital distortion. It sounds like it was recorded on a mobile phone, and it might well have been. With each subsequent release Krell has emerged a little more from beneath his lo-fi security blanket; What Is This Heart? has recognisable instruments, including acoustic guitar and a string section, recorded cleanly.

How To Dress Well recalls a slightly earlier R&B era than FKA Twigs, reaching past Timbaland to the velvety early ’90s, when divas like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston roamed the earth and leading men were not afraid to cry. His lodestar, I am guessing, is Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s 1995 duet ‘One Sweet Day’, which spent 16 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US. “And I know you’re shining down on me from heaven / Like so many friends we’ve lost along the way,” the singers warble, lachrymose and nearly irresistible, “And I know eventually we’ll be together, one sweet day.” The second How To Dress Well album was called Total Loss, partly in tribute to the death of Krell’s best friend – it’s a surprise that he hasn’t yet covered ‘One Sweet Day’, though many of his songs try to approximate it.

More often than not Krell sings in falsetto: his best song to date is ‘& It Was U’, from Total Loss, an irrepressible slice of doo-wop harmonising which begins with only a metronomic click for accompaniment. It sounds like a one-man Jodeci, the hugely popular ’90s R&B quartet. The strain of falsetto singing creates an immediate vulnerability – the singer is almost literally hurting – and Krell conveys the effort but not the erotic urgency of falsetto singers who have preceded him. Unlike Prince, whose voice can suggest total surrender to the object of his adoration, How To Dress Well is a curiously sexless musical project.

Krell recently named Bruce Springsteen’s bleak masterpiece Nebraska (1982) as his favourite record, though that album, which enacts a specific mourning for the devastated working class of Ronald Reagan’s America, is a long way removed from What Is This Heart? Springsteen’s album is possessed by the voices of men who stand no chance of escaping their own hardscrabble futures, and so choose to destroy themselves in the ugliest ways possible. By contrast, What Is This Heart? closes with the words “This world is such a pretty thing”. How To Dress Well is not haunted, only sentimental – an addictive quality, though not an admirable one.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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