Marina & The Diamonds
, May 1st, 2012 06:20
The titles alone cause almost physical pain. 'Primadonna' bodes awfulness. The self-aware self-obsession, the nod to Madonna in a year that she herself releases an album called MDNA (because what is it to be a female icon? I'm just worried that no one's really spent enough pop-hours pondering this question). Or Electra Heart itself, with its deathly boring promise of daddy issues.
But to give Marina Diamandis her credit, that was supposed to be the point. In a great early interview on this album with Popjustice's Peter Robinson she clarified that Electra Heart wasn't so much an alter ego as a shadow self; all the worst parts of Marina Diamandis that she didn't want to become.
The idea, and the initial two-song taster of 'Fear And Loathing', the dark Tori Amos-esque track that closes this album and then the giddy, chart-hungry 'Radioactive' boded well for something interesting (even if the mirror gazing haircut/nervous breakdown video for the former should have rung warning bells). A Marina exploring her own defects and difficulties at the same tame as making the most of herself with all the resources available to her could be great. But, as Robinson noted at the time 'I'm playing a character that embodies everything shallow and awful I don't want to be' also offers a whole lot of get-out clause.
By the release of third video 'The Archetypes', the EH concept wasn't looking so healthy, with Marina pouting and swaying, blonde, vacant and Del Rey-ish into the camera as a Speak And Spell voice opined "Electra Heart, are you for real? / For others, we become ourselves... the archetypes." Mmm. And what are those archetypes?
"Housewife. Beauty Queen. Homewrecker. Idle Teen". Um, speak for yourself? I mean, fucking hell, seriously? This is all you've got? The teenage Manic fan's obsession with the iconicity Marilyn Monroe, the Desperate Housewives-style decades-late debunking of wholesome Stepford-wife femininity, tired retreads of Hole's 'Celebrity Skin' and your own 'Hollywood', a bloody song actually called 'The Valley Of The Dolls'?
Still, a shonky concept could be quietly ignored, surely, the tunes being good enough? There's been some fretting about her selling out her individuality to big-name producers, but it's worth remembering that Greg Kurstin and Biff Stannard made appearances on The Family Jewels, and she's never made a secret of her huge pop ambitions. Played right, the presence of Dr Luke and Stargate could have been the engine room that Marina piloted to the heights she's always craved.
And so it was: well, kinda. The Dr Luke-produced 'Primadonna', her biggest ever hit, is decent enough. No faceless banger; it's certainly got more life and thought behind it than similar womping efforts on the Madonna or Nicki Minaj albums, but just doesn't give enough back for its supreme lyrical irritations. The problem here isn't Dr Luke smothering Marina's idiosyncracies so much as Marina/Electra herself crafting them into something paper-thin and paper-cut annoying. "You say that I'm kinda difficult but it's always someone else's fault... Got you wrapped around my finger babe / You can count on me to misbehave... I know I've got a big ego I don't know why it's such a big deal though." Both title and lyrics of 'Bubblegum Bitch', too, are cringeworthy, with all the vapidity promised but little in the way of analysis thereof, though it's a passable bit of Katy Perryish stomp that retains some of her Sparksy, camp oddness. Marina's powerful voice is what carries most of this album, and allows you at first to overlook lines like "I think I want your American Tan / I think you're gonna be my biggest fan". But she just won't either let Electra Heart lie or give you enough of her to make you care; Electra's neither a character nor an alter ego nor a monster; she's an idly drawn doodle.
And if Marina's just dressing up as this narcisstic tosser, like the sexy witch at a Halloween party, she never once lets slip anything that might be genuinely raw or ugly, just that sort of 'oh how sad, my mascara's been still-attractively smeared down my face by my lonely, damaged tears' sort of vibe. Or as she puts it by the camp, Girls Aloudish bounce-and-blart of 'Homewrecker' between excruciating spoken word passsages, by which point it's all getting a little much to swallow, "I guess you'd say that my life's a mess but I'm still looking pretty in this dress".
It's not like self-loving and loathing, fame and identity aren't common enough obsessions in pop. Take Kanye West's My Dark Twisted Fantasy, a platinum-plated ego trip if ever there was one. Yet for all its vicariously enjoyable Pharaonic braggadocio, it was seasoned with feelings of genuine self-disgust, weariness, remorse and self-deprecating humour. All Electra and her supposed deconstruction of American idolatry really seems to be telling us here is that being pretty and famous isn't all it's cracked up to be, and that some days, she's just not entirely convinced she's amazing. I know, my heart's spasming too.
Disappointingly for someone who has the potential to be such a fearsome pop star, the lack of distance between Electra's vapidity and Marina's presence in the more upbeat tracks means that the ballads are much more successful, the moments of vulnerability in the likes of 'Lies' with its stately, dark R&B shimmer and cry of "I just want it to be perfect / To believe it's all been worth the fight", 'The Living Dead''s crisp Gaga-meets-Eurthymics heartbroken-zombie lament or 'Fear And Loathing' allowing some connection where 'Primadonna' and 'Bubblegum Bitch' don't. Not so much 'Starring Role' which equates a breaking down relationship to an unsatisfactory casting and manages to rhyme 'Starring Role' with, er, "supporting role". It's a shame 'Radioactive' wasn't included – it at least had some of the dangerous rush of a crush, the puns ("I'm heading for a meltdown") not obscuring its stardust sparkle.
By the time of 'The State Of Dreaming' what theme there is is more exhausted than a wannabe actress exhausted from a double-shift at the diner and the strip club. The likes of 'Power & Control''s weak electropop and 'Teen Idle''s choral Madonnaism with references to bottle-blondes, cheerleader chants, and "blood and guts and chocolate cake" and "21st century whores" is a fine example of the problems of describing your concept rather than showing it. Over over and over and over a-bloody-gain. "I wish I wasn't such a narcissist / I wish I didn't really kiss the mirror when on my own / Oh man I'm gonna die alone", Marina whispers in the latter. Maybe a little less time for both her and Electra gazing into the glass, and more finding her way out of her own ass, and her career won't have to.