“Melancholic music envelops you with a feeling of warmth and familiar pain…”
by Vanessa Agbulu
Maybe I’m masochistic, maybe deep deep down inside I’m a little emo, maybe I just like sad songs, but I’ve found that during this quarantine period when I’m feeling down I tend to listen to a lot of melancholic music. I grab a box of tissues, I open up Spotify, put on the saddest album I can find, then have a good cry.
Melancholic music envelops you with a feeling of warmth and familiar pain. Whether it’s the loss of love or friendships or loss of any other type, the moment the music starts, you know you’re not alone in your anguish.
One of my favourite sad albums to listen to is MAGDALENE by English singer-songwriter FKA twigs. Following a very public break up with Hollywood actor and sparkly vampire Robert Pattinson and the discovery of fibroid tumors in her uterus, twigs’ 2019 sophomore effort, MAGDALENE, gives a deeply personal and honest look into the transformative power of pain. This 9-track concept album journeys through the many stages of heartbreak after the end of a relationship. Each song in MAGDALENE is a stop in this journey as twigs takes us through anger, resentment, loneliness, and finally acceptance.
We all know that COVID-19 has brought many sad, lonely and painful moments, many of which we can’t share with others, so music can be a good source of catharsis and release. MAGDALENE gives a great medium to explore our own pain and feel a little less lonely in an isolated world.
The album starts with thousand eyes, a perfect prelude of what to expect. The song introduces us to the breakup that the rest of the album deconstructs and examines. It starts off with layered vocals from twigs without any instruments playing in the background. Similar to the unaccompanied vocals in plainchants by Hildegard von Bingen, her angelic voice is the clear focus as a soft drum begins to play, a clever choice because you get to appreciate her words.
While the track progresses, a synthesizer becomes more prominent as her voice rises in a climax, her burden and despair conveyed perfectly in her vocals. “If I walk out the door, it starts our last goodbye/If you don’t pull me back it wakes a thousand eyes,” twigs sings somberly. Through song, she surveys the fears she harboured as she contemplated the end of her relationship with Pattinson and the backlash that would follow. But in a broader context she is exploring the all too familiar feeling of acting within the confines of the expectations of others in order to avoid scrutiny and condemnation.
Home with you, arguably one of the best tracks on the album, explores intrusive thoughts and feelings of guilt after relationships end. The song starts with a low, almost inaudible piano in the background as twigs sings with distorted vocals that betray a feeling of anger. In one of the more prominent lines in verse 1, she laments, “The more you burn away, the more that people earn from you/The more you pull away, the more that they depend on you,” her resentment, very apparent. But as the song continues, she shifts her tone, her voice becomes more clear and the piano rises, twigs sings the chorus: “I didn’t know that you were lonely/If you’d have just told me, I’d be home with you.” There’s a clear feeling of guilt for leaving her lover.
In her last verse, the song morphs into a ballad, as a loud triumphant piano plays in the background and she sings in angelic, layered vocals. She says her last line: “I’d have told you I was lonely too.” Twigs’ love wasn’t the only one that was suffering, she was suffering as well.
In the music video that accompanies this track, as she sings this line, she rescues her younger self from depths of a well. When she was finally able to admit that she needed help, she was able to save herself. With this track, twigs cleverly uses her voice and the piano to convey a multitude of emotions which starts with anger and resentment, then guilt, and finally healing as the piano plays loudly.
The album continues with sad day, where twigs calls for her lover as she feels him slipping away. This song surveys the beginning of the end of their relationship and her failed efforts to make her lover stay.
She starts with a gentle falsetto beckoning him to her: “Taste the fruit of me/Make love to all you see.” She’s pleading with him to take a chance on their love, but she is very aware that the end is looming. Twigs then sings in deeper distorted vocals: “You’re running/And I tried/I made you sad before.” Her efforts to keep him aren’t working and she blames herself for the part she played. Thunder-like crackling plays in the background as a heavy bass drops. She continues begging for her lover to take a chance on love in her distorted, distressed tone, almost like she has admitted defeat, but is still trying to hold on. This is another great example of how she effectively uses changes in her voice to convey her conflicting emotions.
Next is holy terrain.This is a stand out on the album because it’s one of the more “mainstream” sounding songs. It uses a trap-influenced beat and features popular rapper Future, a rather curious choice as he is the only featured artist on her album. But, twigs’ falsetto juxtaposes nicely with Future’s deeper voice. As twigs sings Future ad libs in the background, alternating between “I try” and “I cry.” From the lover’s perspective, he is trying as much as she is to make it work and he is just as hurt by how things ended.
Although the song has a more danceable beat, the meaningful lyrics make it an interesting listen and it connects well with the rest of the album’s theme of heartbreak.
Mary Magdalene follows next. The title track examines the expectations we place on women especially with regards to relationships. She relates herself to Mary Magdalene, a close confidant of Jesus Christ, written off in history as a biblical whore.
The song starts off with soothing chime sounds as a scratchy tone begins, interrupting the chiming, perhaps disrupting the softness and femininity expected of women. Twigs starts to sing in her light airy voice with a heavy bass in the background. She calls Magdalene a “creature of desire” and tells her lover that she can lift him higher like Magdalene would. She relates sexuality to power while also critiquing how we view women for their sexuality and what they can do for men.
With loud drums playing and a glitching sound in the background, she continues singing in her soft voice, a calm around chaos. Towards the end she uses call-and-response vocal arrangements effectively, making her sound almost like a choir as her voice transcends this world.
Fallen alien is by far the most energetic song on the album. Twigs sings again in her soft layered voice as a medley of clashing sounds play. This track sounds chaotic at first, but somehow manages to be a cohesive body of work.
The thrashing instrumentals betray deep anger as she sings: “I was waiting for you, I was outside/Don’t tell me what you want ‘cause I know you lie,” the layering of her voice causing a haunting echo, showing feelings of anguish and pain. In the chorus, she calls herself a “a fallen alien,” as a melancholic piano plays. She knows she’s different, an alien, but her lover changed who she was, hence she’s fallen. But she’s just as angry with herself as she sings: “I never thought that you would be the one to tie me down.” She can’t seem to understand why she let him change her.
This song is strange and it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the chaotic, rage-filled instrumentals are laced beautifully with her soft vocals.
The album continues with mirrored heart. Possibly the saddest song on the album, twigs goes from rage in the previous track to loneliness and longing in this one. She sings in a light airy voice as reverbed echoey drums play. “But I’m never gonna give up/Though I’m probably gonna think about you all the time/And for the lovers who found a mirrored heart/They just remind me I’m without you,” twigs soft crooning, filled with yearning and sorrow.
No other song on the album embodies loneliness as well as this one. The simple and hollow instrumentals make the sadness so piercing you can’t help but feel her pain. Drums play as she uses call-and-response vocal arrangements to question her lover, “Did you want me all?/No, not for life/Did you truly see me?/No, not this time/Were you ever sure?/No, no, no, not with me.” In her isolated moments she’s plagued by negative thoughts and remorse.
Next is daybed, a song about depressive masturbation, yes, depressive masturbation. The song begins with a soft piano playing as twigs croons in a breathy falsetto giving the track a dreamlike quality. She sings about her dirty dishes and the friendly fruit flies, her home left messy and disarrayed, just like her broken heart. She also sings more suggestive lyrics mentioning “active fingers” and “faux cunnilingus.” Bed ridden from her depression, she seeks a moment of pleasure, taking matters into her own hands, literally. The song ends in a swelling production as the piano rises in a climax. This track is mystifying as you can sense both pain and pleasure.
Cellophane, the last track, recaps her journey of love and heartbreak. This is the perfect ending as there is some resolve to her heartbreak. She may not have wanted to leave her lover as she sings in her delicate voice: “Didn’t I do it for you?/Why don’t I do it for you?” She still wants to be enough for him, yet she knows she’ll never be. A slow warbling piano and a chugging sound accompany her voice. Twigs lets him go, wrapping whatever love they had in cellophane, possibly to put it away or possibly to save it for another day. There’s an element of hope that still lingers.
An honest and intimate look into heartbreak and loneliness, MAGDALENE is a journey of rediscovery through pain, it’s also a great album to listen to if you just want a good ol’ fashioned cry.