Marina Diamandis is a strange prospect in 2019. Is she more Fiona Apple or Britney? Does she want success or independence? Is there a method in her costumey madness, or is she going anywhere at all? Appearing in a burst of indie colour with The Family Jewels in 2010, before winning over a generation of sad Tumblr kids with the ear-bludgeoning pop of Electra Heart, her last album FROOT blended indie sensibilities with indelible pop hookery, in a way that suggested that she’d found herself. It suggested that she was really going somewhere, that her next album would be her masterpiece.
After four years and two Clean Bandit collabs birthed from dating one of the members (who’s to say which one? They’re all vanilla with a kick), we can safely say that this isn’t it. The fact that Marina unceremoniously dumped the LOVE side of her LOVE + FEAR double album online, on a Thursday afternoon three weeks before the release date, says it all. At the time of writing FEAR hasn't been released, but seeing as Marina expressed her desire for each side of the album to be taken on its own merit, that’s what we’re going to do.
“The most we can say about this album is that it’s tightly-sequenced, as is the bare minimum to expect from an eight-track release”
The most we can say about this album is that it’s tightly-sequenced, as is the bare minimum to expect from an eight-track release. The ethereal first single “Handmade Heaven” is a highlight, and the run from “Superstar” to “Baby” is perfectly sequenced. That doesn’t make the songs good, though. The production is decidedly fine but completely unsubtle in its bet-hedging, dipping into watery trap on “Superstar” and bland reggaeton-lite on “Orange Trees”. The latter track in particular, with its sledgehammer beat, forced levity and Marina’s flat delivery, conjures unfavourable comparisons to the more tropical cuts on Sigrid’s debut, an album that runs rings around LOVE in combining buckets of personality with modern, fresh bangers. From the sweetly breezy “Level Up” to the gorgeous washed-out shades of “Business Dinners”, Sigrid seems to effortlessly capture moods and sounds that Marina just can’t seem to grasp, despite the visible seams in each song showing how much effort has gone in.
Then there are the lyrics. Marina has never been a particularly subtle or nuanced lyricist, but her ability to lay out her feelings in a super direct way made FROOT a compelling compendium of her fears and anxieties. LOVE, however, is a shocking decline. “True” is the worst offender, with lines like “you don’t need nobody else / if you stay true, true to yourself”. It truly sounds like she’s attended the RuPaul school of “I read a self-help book once” songwriting (“Enjoy Your Life” is extremely “just stop being sad!”), and it’s cringeworthy.
“She could have just written ‘we live in a society’ and it would have had more intrinsic value as social commentary”
“To Be Human” is the biggest disappointment here. The sonics are more in line with “Handmade Heaven”, and it stokes at least a bit of hope that she did have a vision for this album after all. Then comes the line; “There were riots in America / Just as things were getting better”. She could have just written “we live in a society” and it would have had more intrinsic value as social commentary. The whole contrived “we should just love each other” vibe of this song speaks to Marina’s utter lack of skill in dealing with macro-level topics, and doesn’t scream unity and hope as much as it does privileged ramblings of a white woman sipping wine and sharing inspirational quotes on Facebook. This isn't helped by the official video coming off as a Transition Year project made on Windows Movie Maker. “End Of The Earth” ends the album and begs the question; why didn’t she go this route in the first place? It’s gorgeous and heartfelt, and the breakdown in the last forty seconds is suitably dramatic and a cruelly tantalising glimpse of the epic heights she could have achieved had she aimed for pure pop magic.
This album is baffling until you take a bird’s eye view of Marina’s career and begin to notice the undercurrents of enduring cynicism. After The Family Jewels, she was recorded as saying “I’m pissed off I’m not bigger”. She followed that album with Electra Heart, a trend-chasing pure pop album with a pretty blonde aesthetic explained away by a shallow concept. After that album was slated, she returned with the more naturalistic FROOT, the dictionary definition of “back to basics” which she co-wrote and co-produced. Now that she’s proven she’s still indie— at least to herself— she’s decided to go back to trying to accrue a level of mainstream clout she was never going to have in the first place.
The truth no one wants to admit is that Marina has always been a bit of a chancer and more than a little insecure, always trying to prove herself to whomever and brazenly shoot for fame. When she went away after FROOT and started preaching about mental health and disconnecting from social media, it looked like she was legitimately in a good place. Maybe she is, and this is the kind of music she makes when she’s happy, in which case she can join the Weeknd in the “keep it” pile.
Artists who don’t care what other people think don’t release Spotify algorithm-generated trash. They certainly don’t bitterly tweet about not listening to others’ opinions of her “art” after the lukewarm reception of “Orange Trees”, a Dealz-brand “Despacito”. Looking back, her post-FROOT “Live Laugh Love” mental health guru was probably just another persona, another hopeful “is this the one?” costume, another sulky course-correction, another “well, I didn’t mean it anyway” revision. This would explain a lot, but it doesn’t explain why she’d feel the need to make such a regressive change after her best and most promising album.
We’ll have to wait until FEAR to discern whether she has lost her way completely, and the fact that she has hinted at a darker vibe coupled with the fact that we’ve heard nothing from it yet sparks at least a little bit of hope. Anyone hoping for that masterpiece, though, should give up and listen to someone else. If there’s a Marina Diamandis masterwork out there, it’s not going to come from Marina.