Album Review: Marina & The Diamonds – ‘Electra Heart’

Marina & The Diamonds – ‘Electra Heart’: 4.7

The last time avid chart trawlers saw Marina & The Diamonds, she was struggling to cling onto a Top 40 spot with the ill-fated and strangely aptly-titled ‘Oh No!’. Barely sneaking in the back door at #38 after the stumbling success of the unashamed satire of American life, ‘Hollywood’, and the saccharine preciousness of ‘I Am Not A Robot’s dinky little chorus ditty, Marina sheltered herself in the studio once again, only emerging to record a video for last single of the ‘The Family Jewels’ era, ‘Shampain’. A lot of the things that made Marina so unique were the things that completed alienated her from anything remotely marketable. Obviously trying to catch a ride on the 2008-09 bandwagon which saw the invasion of the British blonde bombshell pop songstresses Ladyhawke, Little Boots and Pixie Lott, as well as the unexpected success of the awkward hipster-bitch La Roux, things didn’t quite go to plan and her kookiness personified ‘The Family Jewels’ album was left to stagnate in the hands of only her most loyal fans.

If we skip forward three years and re-focus on the second album effort of Diamandis, we see she has opted for a shiny new alter-ego approach and formed ‘Electra Heart’, a fictitious identity she believes to be the antithesis of everything she stands for. Alas, Electra Heart is arriving on barren ground; alter-egos are nothing new to this industry and can no longer justify any artist’s insatiable desire to want to dabble in a style of music experimentally. It was a head-scratching revelation even back when we first heard ‘Radioactive’ (which has been relegated to a Deluxe edition track, in case you were wondering where it got to), and even up to the sledgehammering campness of ‘Primadonna’, the concept of the alter-ego was already tired and hackneyed, as was the image of the doomed starlet of 50s Americana – but we’re not giving that credit to Lana Del Rey, be certain – Paloma Faith gets it for mastering that image nearly two years before Del Rey was even signed.

But that’s not the main problem with ‘Electra Heart’; like her first album, it appears the album’s been constructed on a gaping chasm in Marina’s own internal logic. Glancing swiftly at the credits for her far less showy but equally as eager to please first album sees only British writers and producers with a sound of chirpy falsetto and twinkling piano ditties comprising the most of it. Yet on her bigger-sounding, sky-flying second album satirising America with even more zeal that ‘Hollywood’, she’s roped in twice the manpower – predominately American – and opted for a glossier, more polished sounding assembly of effervescent synths, storming operatic chanting and thunderous drum loops. This works in her favour in that it means the tracks are at least distinguishable from one another seeing as they aren’t all built on a silly Mika-styled staccato piano progressions, and are instead full-bellied walls of sound, but there’s only so much an alter-ego can account for and the very bones of the album having a part in that is not something anyone hoping to be won over will be likely to swallow lightly. Not only that, the album runs like a 45 minute-long aural assault with more energy than Katy Perry after a Haribo binge (although the big come-down does hit you by track three, only to be cranked back up to 11 on the next track and then barely let up for the rest of the album).

And naturally, there are side effects of this reckless idea-tossing energy, this smorgasbord disaster – the most embarrassing of which is that it’s feels like the unpredictability of some of what should be the album’s strongest material (e.g. the attention-seeking opener, ‘Bubblegum Bitch’, which sounds like a rejected Avril Lavigne-meets-Alex Roots B-side who’s electric guitar comes across as clunky and repetitive by the end of its unusually short run) has been sucked dry by what normally happens when a singer takes on a task to prove themselves as something other than just another of many silver-tongued, wide-eyed British youngsters with delirious wits and ears for a good pop hook (CocknBullKid, anyone?). It’s an excellent recipe for selling a couple of records to keep the Fat Cats happy, but not the best route if you’re holding out for some substance. Marina, on ‘Electra Heart’, is trying to convince us there is substance in something that even she personally believes has none, and thus her catch-22 is revealed. Sure, she effortlessly captures the light-headed airiness of blonde bimbo trophy wives on tracks like the high-wire cinematics of ‘Valley of the Dolls’ (a skill that owes a lot to her more dainty début), but it’s when she tries to tie down any real ideas that her façade slips – ‘Starring Role’ attempts gallantly at being a diva-inspired craving for adoration, but for three-and-a-half minutes it’s handled far too severely, meaning all the subtly that Marina puts into her voice in its wispy verses is lost in an ocean of self-indulgent warbling by the chorus. For some, the inconsistency is a good thing, as Marina’s own personality comes bounding through on the whirlwind dementedness of super-charged bitch-anthem ‘Homewrecker’, and she perfectly pinpoints the dominating tone with the stomping cosmic swirling of ‘Power & Control’s hypnotising melodies, showing that even when she’s camper than a row of pink tents, she knows how to channel the kittenish hyperactivity she’ll soon be known for to produce the odd pop gem.

Elsewhere on the album, she gives a good albeit disparagingly unconvincing go at the vulnerable lover image on ‘Lies’. A momentary show of affection and sensitivity beneath the porcelain exterior, the song’s fragile mask is smashed to smithereens with a poorly-handled approach at balladry production from Diplo (the man behind arguably more experimental songs like ‘Pon Da Floor’ and Nicola Roberts’ ‘Beat of My Drum’), and so the idea to assign him to one of the more timeless concepts of music is both alarming and completely non-profitable.

Looking back at ‘Electra Heart’, you don’t feel like you’ve been let in to what Marina actually wants to do with her music, excluding the modest and actually quite pleasant, pastel-coloured penultimate track ‘Hypocrates’ (complete with unexplained spelling error in the title). What we have here is a slap-bag job that, after stepping back and examining the minute progressive impulses from ‘The Family Jewels’, looks like not the result of a smart independent artist carving her own path into the industry rock-face, but instead the result of someone at Diamandis’ record label reviewing the sales of her début and suggesting she stop making music so slight it could pass as nursery rhymes, dumping her into the studio with the guy behind ‘TiK ToK’ and ‘I Kissed A Girl’ and hoping that whatever came from it can be marketed with some sort of clever spin. Alas for Diamandis, it looks as though this marketing ploy, like so many other conspicuously dead-in-the-water ideas from big wig corporations like Atlantic Records, has fallen through almost as spectacularly as the chart run of ‘Oh No!’.

Download: ‘Homewrecker’, ‘The State of Dreaming’, ‘Hypocrates’.

Digital Release: April 30, 2012
Physical Release: April 30, 2012

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