In the press release for her most recent EP M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa”), released on August 13th, FKA twigs called her new record "an aggressive statement conceptualizing the process of feeling pregnant with pain, birthing creativity and liberation.” Most musicians have a hard time describing their work in words, but FKA twigs (née Taliah Barnett) nailed hers down to a tee. M3LL155X is a musical statement as aggressive and conceptual as you'll ever see — uniquely so I would argue, with its very identity as an EP an act of ferocious relevance.
Until now, Barnett had given all her releases titles that were themeless descriptions of their forms: EP1, EP2, LP1. This functioned as a leveling mechanism in the eyes of her audience. By simply titling the releases by their form and number, she framed each record as equally important within her oeuvre. But M3LL155X, breaks that pattern. Not only does M3LL155X have a specific title and, as Barnett has stated in interviews, the explicit theme of power and submission, it's also accompanied by a full sixteen-minute music video featuring all five of the EP’s tracks and elaborating on the record’s complicated subject matter. Most importantly, in an impressively cohesive aesthetic gesture, the songs on M3LL155X all have a consistently sinister color or feature some sort of dark, industrial drop beneath Barnett's airy, pleading vocals.
In the music video, which effectively functions as a short film, Barnett addresses how power and submission exist between audience and performer. For the song “in time,” Barnett dances in front of a scrutinizing male observer, who frowns at her through a floating crystal screen. Barnett is literally under the male gaze and in that manner commenting on the gendered power dynamics most female performers are subjected to in music videos and through their individual brands. For the song “I’m Your Doll,” Barnett becomes a blow-up sex mannequin with a ragged, drooling man careening above her, but as she said recently in an interview with NPR, she views the submissive gesture as being on her terms and thus empowering, and believes the music video communicates that message in a manner the music cannot on its own. Penultimate track “Glass And Patron" reconciles her opposing desires for submission and power, juxtaposing vulnerable lyrics like “Am I dancing sexy yet? Will you fuck me while I stare at the sun?” against the chilling, dominant incantation “one… two… three… now hold that pose for me.” The video ends with twigs fully empowered, a red-garbed queen seated on a throne, sleek men dancing before her, desirous of her approval.
But what’s most noteworthy and groundbreaking about all this is that M3LL155X — likely the most definitive thematic and aesthetic statement of FKA twigs’s career to date — is just an EP rather than a full-length album. FKA twigs’s prime aesthetic statement was not in the same recorded form that has been used for every other prime aesthetic statement of every other mainstream artist in the history of recorded music. The fact that the titles of each of Barnett's previous releases so self-consciously refer to their own format demonstrates the artist's awareness of these formats and their respective associations (i.e. what it means to release an LP and what it means to release an EP). When Barnett releases EP1, EP2, and now M3LL155X, she isn’t just releasing music, she’s releasing an EP. This is potentially the first time that a relatively mainstream artist has placed an EP over an LP in thematic significance. That alone is huge.
The reason this is such a big deal, the reason why I’m even writing about this record when it’s already been covered so extensively, is that twigs’s gesture of prioritizing the EP over the LP is a symptom of a larger trend within the music industry and within the music listening populace. The experiences and desires of contemporary listeners are changing rapidly, for better or worse, and investigating the evolving, multi-faceted identity of the EP in today’s music industry turns out to be a useful means of tracing how listeners and the industry are pulled between competing ways of consuming and packaging music.
The defining characteristic of the EP (short for “extended play”) is its length: the Recording Industry Association of America defines an EP as a release of three to five songs or a release of under thirty minutes, though in reality many artists call six or seven-track records EPs as well (Car Seat Headrest’s latest “EP” clocked in at almost an hour and nine tracks long, so definitions are flexible-ish). As a result of their conveniently short length, many of the first EPs were often just compilations of previous hits, with one of the first well-known EPs being the Beatles' The Beatles' Hits from 1963. And length ends up being the EP’s primary strength as a release form: an EP takes less time to write, which means more time to polish. It’s easier to pull off a concise, consistent aesthetic statement over the course of three to six songs than over the course of ten or more. The LP is simply more time consuming, a more intense artistic endeavor, and therefore it's part of its identity for to be sprawling, less organized in some perfect systematic fashion. This isn’t the case with the EP.
The reason the extended play has evolved into such a complicated release format is because its length is being used to many different ends, all either stretching beyond our pre-existing conceptions of the format or conforming to them, both to positive and negative results. One of the most commonly seen forms of the EP is “the EP as a stealth single,” where an artist releases a catchy track couched between two or three other songs of lesser importance, sometimes bundling the tracks together with the aim of charging significantly higher EP prices. An example of this is producer Hudson Mohawke's 2014 EP Chimes, which revolves entirely around the title track at the beginning of the record, a hard-hitting banger complete with a brassy drop and a faux (or real?) canine “woof.” Second track “Brainwave” is two minutes of shifting ambient textures without a beat, and following cut “King Kong Beaver” is too frenetic and cartoonish to be viable as a real single. Mohawke doesn’t attempt to hide the EP's lopsided nature — he called the EP Chimes after its central track and used a remix of that same banger as its fourth track. But there are also EPs which explicitly defy this “stealth-single” model: Nosaj Thing’s Views/Octopus EP contains what is by far his most famous track, "Aquarium," an ethereal chillwave anthem that catapulted him into the indie-electronic mainstream in 2006, but the EP isn’t centered around his hit song. Most of the surrounding tracks, like "Heart Entire" and “Distro” are arguably more dance-y than “Aquarium,” and the popularity of “Aquarium” works towards rather than against the larger aesthetic impression the EP delivers.
Next is the model of the "EP as post-album leftovers.” It’s a way for an artist to keep giving to fans during what would normally be a post-album lull. Animal Collective, notably, does this well. The EPs Water Curses and Fall Be Kind were each made from unused tracks from Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavilion respectively, and all four records have their own unique aesthetic personality. The EP as post-album leftovers works when the tracks add a new dimension to a previously explored sound world while not sounding too similar to the previous material. While Animal Collective certainly delivers, this model can crash and burn when the EP tracks end up just being weaker toss-offs of a previous artistic vision. Baths’ 2014 Ocean Death EP, which followed a year after his surprisingly dark sophomore album Obsidian, served more to show his sound’s limits than its potential. Though the release was billed as “a companion piece” to his last LP, the songs mostly sounded like poorer versions of the previously released material.
Closely related but distinct from this type of extended play is the "EP as hype tactic,” a release with less innocent intentions which occurs when an artist releases an EP before or after an album release in order to build or maintain buzz surrounding the full-length. Often, this is the result of an artist being pressured by his or her label, and even if the EP can stand up on its own legs, listeners can sometimes walk away feeling like they’ve been “had,” that the artist was doing it less to share new content with fans and more to rev up attention for an upcoming LP. This is forgivable for new bands that just want to “get something out there" and engage with a fan base as soon as possible, but not as much so for more mainstream artists. Panda Bear has been particularly guilty of this in the past year, releasing an EP both before and after his colorful full-length Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. While the first EP, Mr. Noah, was a lush, tropical release that functioned well as a cohesive product, post-album Crosswords seemed more like an amalgam of odds and ends, new mixes of old songs and unreleased old material all put out into the world as much for the continued hype as for musical substance. Bjork is perhaps the ultimate perpetrator of this crime, known for releasing heaps of insubstantial post-album material and lackluster remixes, either in the form of EPs or full-length compilations, all functioning as the equivalent TV infomercial.
Another interesting release to think about in this regard, though it isn’t strictly an EP, is Mac Demarco’s “mini-LP” Another One, for which the very title seems to knowingly refer to its own lack of significance. DeMarco’s label Captured Tracks is known for trying to milk as much fame as they can out of him, pressuring him to write a catchy single for talk shows, putting him on relentless touring schedules, and giving him never-ending recording deadlines. On Another One, the listener starts to hear DeMarco’s craft suffer as a result. Other than the title track and “A Heart Like Hers,” the songs seem like regurgitations of the same trademark Mac Demarco guitar grease, soaked in his trademark chorus sound. Just more Mac songs, just “another one.” In contrast to M3LL155X, which is an EP striving for the aesthetic importance of an LP, Another One is an EP in disguise, a throw-away release of hastily assembled material written and recorded during two free weeks between tours.
The last form of the EP left to talk about might be, in my opinion, the most successful and therefore the most worthy of discussion — what I call the “EP as novella.” M3LL155X falls most into this category. The EP as novella is an EP that strives to be a cohesive aesthetic and thematic statement and refuses to be thought of as “just an EP.” Think about the mythology behind “The Great Novel,” how anyone who goes about writing a novel is consciously or unconsciously pinning themselves against books like Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and Pride and Prejudice. This same daunting baggage exists with the album, because in making a full-length, you are to some extent engaging with the venerated canon of Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper, and Dark Side of the Moon, whether that engagement is conscious or not. Like the novella, the EP can be a way to free oneself of this baggage, to make a serious artistic statement without it being held up to the standard of past masterpieces. Does this make producing an EP an act of cowardice? I don’t think so. Striking out across that sort of structural frontier is creatively empowering. When Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis and Thomas Mann wrote Death in Venice, those novellas each became classics in their own right, and more importantly, on their own terms, without their nature being particularly influenced by what a novella had or hadn't been in the past.
We’ve already talked about how M3LL155X refuses to be “just an EP," and Thundercat’s recent six-track The Beyond/Where Giants Roam does this very same thing, spinning a psychedelic narrative journey through his lonely contemplations that impacts you as emotionally and aesthetically as any great album can. And so do the EPs of Arca and Washed Out and Wild Nothing and… There are so many substantial, serious EPs being released now — is it plausible that eventually not only will there be the phenomenon of “The Great Album” but also “The Great EP”? The same way there is, to some extent, now a canon of great novellas? And how did this shift begin so suddenly?
It would probably be too simplistic to say that the phenomenon of the significant EP is solely a result of finding a middle ground between album and single. That said, in the recent move toward listening to individual songs on playlists, and away from listening to albums start to finish, as cohesive units, the experience of consuming a large aesthetic statement has been lost; the serious, thematic EP helps recover some of that lost ground. When people stop listening to albums all the way through, as is now a common occurrence thanks to playlist-intensive streaming services like Spotify, the curatorial power gets shifted from the artist to the listener. What I mean by this is that when an artist makes an album and the listener plays the album all the way through, the artist is curating the content that the listener consumes over the next thirty minutes to sixty minutes. But when the listener takes favorite songs from favorite albums and throws them all in one playlist, the artist is stripped of this curatorial power and it is passed along to the listener, who now curates his or her own listening experience (or who has that experience curated by a third party — radio DJs, Google Music interns, algorithms). This is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, many would argue that playlists positively empower the consumer, who’s now able to selectively choose his content and potentially maximize his or her own pleasure.
But do playlists always maximize one’s pleasure? I’m not sure. As someone who listens to music mainly through my own curated playlists, I sometimes feel like I’m missing the experience of hearing the entirety of an artist’s vision at a specific point in his or her life. Listening to all your favorite songs delivers an intense amount of fun in a short amount of time, but sometimes it can be a bit like watching a sitcom instead of reading serious literature. When you listen to an album all the way through, there might be some songs that you like less than others, songs that you might not put on a favorites playlist if you had the choice, but the feeling of giving your experience up to the artist and allowing him or her to steer you emotionally in whatever way they choose, to show you their world and give it time to develop, is a precious, redemptive, and potentially transcendent interaction between human beings that can’t really be found in a homemade playlist. It’s communication with others, after all (and particularly through art), that makes us feel less alone.
In terms of listening to songs/playlists or listening to albums, it seems, like most things, to come down to balance and moderation, and the EP-as-novella fits into that equation in a particularly convenient way. The EP, in its short length, doesn’t ask for too much commitment from the listener in order for him or her to appreciate the artist’s aesthetic world. In this new, single-driven (rather than album-driven) industry, the EP-as-novella is a convenient way to expose the listener to the entirety of one’s artistic vision in a practical manner that takes into consideration the frenetic, information-saturated bustle of our times. The previously mentioned identities of the EP will likely remain — there will always still be hype-EPs and stealth-single-EPs — but as of late, we can now welcome the EP-as-serious-thematic-release into our musical and cultural purview. Within just a couple years, a whole new structure of music has been created. The EP no longer has to come in at a distant second place.