In the rotation: late summer

Cover of M3LL155X by FKA twigs (Courtesy Young Turks UK)
Cover of M3LL155X by FKA twigs (Courtesy Young Turks UK)

A couple of things I’ve been listening to lately :

FKA twigs,  M3LL155X 

The British singer/dancer/songwriter/performance artist (birth name: Tahliah Barnett) steps forward as Kate Bush’s truest spiritual daughter with this five-song multimedia project that appeared with no advance notice on Aug 13. Working with producer Boots, twigs continues to make bewitching and confident music that defies easy classification — like last year’s LP1, the new EP is a mesh of electronica and R&B that pulls you into its dreamy drifting logic the more you listen. Like Kate Bush, twigs sounds ethereal but her concepts, and the conviction with which she puts them forth, carry a gigantic echo. Both artists think and perform across art forms, and both artists’  lyrics and videos explore sex, gender, creativity and the inner lives of women with a dramatic flair that marries the beautiful and the grotesque.

The release of M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa”) was accompanied by a visually arresting 16- minute video, directed by twigs, that strings a narrative together from four of the songs and hinges on twigs’ explanation that “Melissa” is her “female energy.” The film opens with a regal gold-toothed, tattooed and bejeweled figure (portrayed by Michele Lamy) — she could be the wise crone or a mother goddess — wearing a swan-necked light bulb on her forehead to suggest the esca of an angler fish. Meanwhile, we hear twigs singing “Figure 8,” about learning to be tough yet still womanly by following the example of vogueing men. The lyrics are a sensual stream of juxtaposed maternal imagery and violence: “I’ve a baby inside/ But I won’t give birth until you insert yourself inside of me … I am an angel/ My back wings give the hardest slap that you’ve ever seen.”

As “Figure 8” flows into the staggered, spacy “I’m Your Doll,” the crone’s mouth closes around the light bulb and gives birth to a blow-up doll that uncurls from its fetal position to become twigs with a plastic CGI body: “Wind me up/ I’m your doll/Dress me up/I’m your doll/ Love me rough …” As harrowing as “I’m Your Doll” sounds on the EP, it’s even moreso on video, with twigs-as-blow-up-doll enduring dehumanizing sex while her big fringed doll-eyes stare emptily at the ceiling.

In the next song, “In Time” (the most immediately melodic song on the EP), twigs wakes up with a huge prosthetic pregnancy belly, then dances for a man who watches impassively as she implores him be his best self: “Learn to say sorry and I will play tender with you … I will be better and we will be stronger and you will be greater/ The one that I always wanted you to be.” But when her waters break in a gush of multicolored paint down her legs, the man’s face contorts in disgust. “You got a goddamn nerve,” twigs screams on the jagged chorus.

The male gaze and the female gaze morph back and forth in the final sequence “Glass and Patron,” in which twigs births herself of vogueing, fluidly gendered males, meant to symbolize “Melissa.” They vogue for her inspection, and then she joins them, decked out in breathtaking red on a fashion runway. As a multimedia performance piece, M3LL155X is intoxicating and in-your-face, and FKA twigs executes it all without flinching.

Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?

Hot Chip’s sixth studio album has rarely left my playlist since it was released a few months ago. I’m in love with the humanness of this record, not to mention its mood-elevating dance grooves. From the sampling of “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice that opens the lead track “Huarache Lights,” to the funky Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet keyboard sound on “Started Right,”  to the slow-jam loveliness of “White Wine and Fried Chicken” (which sounds like a lost Prince tune), Hot Chip infuses its electronic pop with soulfulness, warmth and a tang of wistfulness that never slides over into nostalgia. It’s an album about the anxiety of growing older and obsolete — “replace us with the things that do the job better” goes the robotic-voice chorus of “Huarache Lights” — tempered by the enduring joy of finding human connection, be it through love or music.

Not on the album, but firmly of the album: Hot Chip’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” which they’ve been playing on their Why Make Sense? tour. Everything about this choice is perfect. “Dancing in the Dark” was Springsteen’s first single off 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. and his first attempt at a modern-sounding synth-driven dance song. At the time, Springsteen took some heat from rock-oriented fans over his foray into “disco.” But Springsteen’s vulnerable, yearning vocal, about wanting to get out into world, no matter how grim and restricting, and be alive, counteracts the potential remoteness of the synthesized keyboards. Which has pretty much been Hot Chip’s approach to making music, in their fusion of electronica, Alexis Taylor’s intimate vocals and actual guitar and drums. Hot Chip’s touring version of the song works as both homage to Springsteen and extension of the theme of Why Make Sense? They put the soul into the machine, and leave their audiences, literally, dancing in the dark.

Also, I really want this sweatshirt.



©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015