Marina And The Diamonds: Electra Heart (Album Review)
“‘Oh my God, you look just like Shakira! No, no–you’re Catherine Zeta!’ ‘Actually, my name’s Marina,'” she sang on “Hollywood,” the second single off of 2010’s The Family Jewels.
It’s been over two years since her debut, and Marina + The Diamonds is back with yet another identity crisis for her second go-around in the studio–and this time, she’s evoking a cold, cruel bitch named Electra Heart.
While crafting the follow-up to her 2010 debut, Marina originally turned down requests to head into the studio with bigger names. But after an extended period of solo writing sessions, she found herself unhappy with what was being produced. As she explained in an interview for the Electra Heart campaign, she finally gave into the idea of collaboration after meeting with producer Rick Nowels–which she called the best decision of her life.
Looking over the liner notes for this record, it’s easy to see that Electra Heart is a major powerhouse production–Dr. Luke, Diplo, Cirkut and Greg Kurstin are just some of the names involved–which has led many indie purists and/or music snobs to brand Marina a “sell out.” After all, here’s an artist who spent a good chunk of her first record working with indie-pop producers like Liam Howe, now stepping into the booth with the same producers who help shape radio smashes for Britney Spears, Rihanna and Katy Perry. For shame!
But for those willing to look beyond the star-studded names and actually pay attention to the lyricism and songcraft found on Electra Heart, it’s obvious that Marina Diamandis is written all over her second studio album–an even stronger, more cohesive set than its predecessor.
The transformation into the Electra Heart era began over six months ago, as the singer started to release grainy webcam photos of herself sporting a platinum blonde wig (it’s since been dyed, and really more of a grayish white now), along with a video series.
The first, called “Fear & Loathing,” found the singer snipping away her locks to a short black bob, and was soon followed by the clip for the campaign’s phenomenal (unofficial) lead single: “Radioactive,” still one of the best singles of 2011. The clip followed the singer, now sporting that blonde wig, as she traveled America with a bad boy in tow, stirring up trouble in convenience stores and hotel rooms in the dusty deserts of the heartland.
“Radioactive” never gained much traction in the UK, however–ultimately sputtering in at the lukewarm height of #25 on the UK Singles Chart. Whether a reaction to Marina’s partnership with the Norwegian dance-pop production duo Stargate, her new image or simply due to poor radio reception, the song was largely ignored by the general public. Nonetheless, it bought Marina some extra time to suss out the finer details of her upcoming project.
Inspired visually by the camp of The Valley of The Dolls, as well as by ponderings about the new, instant mini-celebrity age of Tumblr, Marina began posing in ‘60’s retro couture—as a suburban housewife, an idle teen, a homewrecker, a beauty queen (all lovingly referred to as “The Archetypes”)–to personify the spirit of heartbreak threaded throughout her upcoming effort.
“Primadonna,” the album’s storming lead single (after “Radioactive” was declared a buzz track) released earlier in April, was the world’s official official grand introduction to Miss Electra Heart: “Get what I want ‘cause I ask for it, not because I’m really that deserving of it,” Marina declares across the song’s surging beat; a colossal pop smash that most resembles Britney’s dub-pop masterpiece “Hold It Against Me.” (No surprises there–another win for Dr. Luke!)
With its cheerleader-friendly chants in the background (“Wow! Yeah!”) and sarcasm-soaked lyrics, “Primadonna” is the album’s cheekiest representation of Electra Heart: glitz, glamour, and nothing to offer of any actual value–like a well-produced dance-pop single from The Real Housewives franchise but with an added wink wink that says, quite Britishly, ‘I’m taking the piss.’
And so we finally have Electra Heart, a concept record with two personalities at play: There’s Electra, the ruthless anti-heroine of the record, and Marina, the quirky, dramatic singer-songwriter whom we’ve already met in different capacities on The Family Jewels.
Similar to Lily Allen‘s brilliantly acerbic It’s Not Me, It’s You from back in 2009, the album’s genius comes in the form of smart, mocking lyricism meshed with power-pop beats. (It makes sense too: Greg Kurstin, who executive produced Allen’s record, had a hand in a few of the tracks on Electra Heart as well.)
Beyond “Primadonna”, Electra Heart rears her platinum blonde head in the form of other hilariously deadpan anthems like the punchy album opener “Bubblegum Bitch”: “I’ll chew you up and I’ll spit you out, ‘cause that’s what young love is all about,” she triumphantly declares above the crashing beat, one of the many crafted by Nowels. That she uses the phrases “Soda Pop” and “Dear Diary”—two album tracks by our very own bubblegum pop Queen Britney (who she genuinely adores)–in the second verse is surely no accident at all.
“Homewrecker,” Electra’s cruelest cut of the bunch, sees our heartless heroine trouncing around and getting herself into plenty of trouble: “Deception and perfection are wonderful traits/One will breed love, the other hate,” she declares in an authoritative British accent above dreamy, atmospheric waves (and a dull buzz that sounds a bit like a tattoo needle humming in the background). All at once, she charges into the chorus: “And I don’t belong to anyone…they call me homewrecker!” she dramatically cries out. It’s an anthem for the morally bankrupt–something I imagine Marina had only too much fun writing for herself.
As with The Family Jewels, the greatest highlight of all—even with Dr. Luke, Diplo and Rick Nowels on board—is Marina’s lyrics. Like a cross between the quivering intensity of Fiona Apple, the black wit of Joan Rivers and the imagery-ridden power pop songcraft of Bonnie McKee, her way with words—wrought with humor (“I want blood, guts and chocolate cake”), bitterness (“You don’t love me, big fucking deal”) disarming honesty (“I just wanted to be perfect”), and thought-provoking ponderings (“No room for imagining, ’cause everyone’s seen everything”)–is simply unparalleled in the pop landscape. She’s a master lyricist.
The album isn’t entirely the work of Electra, either. Songs like “Starring Role”—one of the several highlights of the record—prove that underneath the gray hair, glamorous dresses and that heart-shaped mark on her cheek, it’s still Marina singing: “The only time you open up is when we get undressed,” Marina sadly sings. And despite her best attempt at defiance during the soldiering chorus, the song shines with its bitterness: “Come on baby, let’s just get drunk/Forget we don’t get on,” she offers.
The persona peels back even further on the utterly devastating “Lies,” co-produced by Diplo, Cirkut and Dr. Luke. Set against a pulverizing series of weird, winding gritty beats—reminiscent of Britney’s ex-sexin’ Femme Fatale anthem, “Inside Out”—Marina waves a white flag: “You’re never gonna love me, so what’s the use?” she sadly resigns. It’s all shades of perfection, although the acoustic version of the song released weeks earlier already proved that–even stripped of the brilliant electronic production by the talented producers–the song is one of the best tracks Marina’s penned, ever.
Apart from heartbreak however, the record also seems to find its fascinations in exploring issues of power and identity. Most obviously, of course, is “Power & Control,” a personal favorite of the album: “Women and men, we are the same/But love will always be a game,” Marina declares with a raised fist above the song’s surging chorus. With its hammering beats and damning piano melody twinkling in the distance (and an unbelievably incredible bridge of layered vocals and dance floor pulsations), the arena-sized power-pop number feels ready to split at the seams at any second.
It’s not the first time Marina mentions the power struggle between men and women, as with “Hypocrates”: “I know you only want to own me, that’s the kind of love you show me/You tell me one thing and do another, keep all your secrets undercover,” she sings above the big, sparkling guitar-pop tune which tinges with a breezy, almost ‘60’s pop flair, “American Pie” style. It comes as no surprise then that Electra Heart is hellbent on being no one’s bitch.
“Sex Yeah,” one of the incredible deluxe tracks of the record, finds Marina delivering one truth after another above a kicking synth-pop rock pulse, similar to Ladyhawke’s debut effort. “Question what the TV tells you, question what a pop star sells you/Question mom and question dad, question good and question bad,” she wisely offers in the first verse. “If women were religiously recognized sexually, we wouldn’t have to feel the need to show our assets to feel free,” she declares in the next. Feminist theory set against a surging, foot tap-friendly beat? Sign me up, please.
As the album slows to a contemplative finish, you start to wonder if this is Electra Heart’s tragically tormented inner dialogue or just Marina’s own self-consciousness. It’s not always easy to tell.
On “Teen Idle”—yet another one of the album’s shining highlights—Electra’s (or Marina’s?) anxieties come to a head in the album’s saddest contemplation (with the blackest sense of humor): “I wish I’d been a teen idol/Wish I’d been a prom queen fighting for the title/Instead of being sixteen and burning up the bible feeling super, super, super suicidal,” she sing-songs. Dreamily crooning about becoming “a real fake” and drinking the pain away, the song provides the album’s most food for thought (both chocolate and angel cake, in fact!) about growing up in the digital age of fame and instant celebrity.
Electra Heart is undoubtedly one of the best records of 2012, on par with Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die released earlier this year. Funnily enough, both share in an obsession with the glamour of vintage American life–possibly as a by-product of the two having a producer in common (Nowels). Yet whereas Lana uses Americana to evoke a certain nostalgia in her music, Marina takes classic American culture and molds it into much more biting, frank and cynical.
Somewhere at the intersection of a campy Broadway production, the raw angst of the ’90’s school of female singer-songwriters, unabashed bubblegum pop and just a touch of macabre exists Electra Heart, a collection of brilliantly crafted, smart pop songs with a healthy sense of humor that refuses to be any one thing. It’s an album that criticizes, indulges and wears as many hats as it damn well pleases. Or, in Electra’s case, wigs and diamonds.
Electra Heart was released on April 30 in the UK, and will be released July 17 in the US. (iTunes)