Sunday, May 20, 2012

Electra Heart Beats

Marina faced many expectations going into this project (though I do think she was quite excited to enter the next phase of her career. After all, being a POP star is fun.) She has fans that wanted her to go more POP (a la Katy Perry), and I suppose those audience members should be at least partially satisfied by Electra Heart. Then she has others who crave the indie Marina of yore. They want The Family Jewels Part 2. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle. I want her to progress without sacrificing her natural knack for melody or lyricism, and I don't think those two things are mutually exclusive or oppose each other in any way. Proof? We shall get to that later.

Marina originally planned to make a concept record about female archetypes, each embodying a part of American womanhood that represented the worst part of the American dream. Sound confusing? That's because it is; much too much, Marina. This record was meant to be a Greek tragedy. In other words, she planned to showcase the character's self-induced downfall in order to represent the tragedy of American culture/materialism. However, this album has no tragic ending. For example, there seem to be no consequences for the album's Homewrecker archetype; she'll go on breaking up marriages like it's the coolest thing since an ass-wax. As a result, we at Unapologetically POP have come to see all of this rhetoric as an excuse for Marina to act like the bitchy, elitist POP star she always aspired to be. She just needed a character to scapegoat so that she wouldn't receive flack for being an egotistical ass. Harsh, but true. I understand that people change. You might say you'll never do something, and then go around and do it later. People are bound to contradict themselves and change their minds. However, posturing as someone who is better than everyone else and trying to justify it by occasionally chiming in with "this is just a character I'm playing" is an act I'm not buying. If she wants to be a douche bag, she should own it and not hide behind some bitchy character. Madonna does, and I respect her all the more.

Marina Del Rey?
Anyhow, this album has been said to be about so many things - the downfall of the American dream, the downfall of the American POP star, Marina's POP star fantasy brought to life (as she claimed she had always wanted to sing POP and die her hair blonde), an aggressive record about a lost love (making her the anti-Adele, according to Marina) - that the concept seems to drown under all of these goals. To make things worse, the aesthetic Marina had been planning on - a tragic retro-glam American Princess - was executed by Lana Del Rey while Marina was still in recording sessions. Now she looks like an unoriginal copy cat, though the idea was actually quite innovative to begin with.

I'm a big fan of this album's sonic intentions. I love pure mid and up-tempo electronic music with heart & soul (a la Madonna's Ray of Light album and everything that followed it). However, the execution is hit or miss. I love Primadonna's production. Dr. Luke did a great job creating a sound that was fresh and radio-friendly, but sufficiently warm to suit Marina's fatalistic style. However, the lyrics are completely idiotic, and so are those who think "Fill the void up with celluloid / Take a picture, I'm with the boys" represents lyrical depth. I'd rather ride the Homewrecker's "Boys and their toys and their six inch rockets," as unappealing and unbelievable as that sounds coming out of Marina's mouth via the grossest spoken word ever! I love Rick Nowels' production of Homewrecker, but the verses are simply horrible. Marina wants to sound like Madonna in Vogue, but comes off disingenuous. It's as if she's playing POP star dress up, instead of actually being one. Very few people have been able to adopt spoken word effectively - the few who've accomplished the feat include Lana Del Rey and Ke$ha, and it's because they don't try to copy someone else's style - they make it their own. On Homewrecker, the spoken word is laughable, reminding me of Countess Luann De Lesseps' supremely cheesy Chic C'est La Vie. Excuse me for restricting my Real Housewives to Bravo watching hour.

The rest of Rick Nowels' Marina tracks are sub-par. He's said to have collaborated with Madonna over 15 years ago, but only completed one non-single for her, so that doesn't really count in my book. Most recently, he's written with Lykke Li and Lana Del Rey. I will say that I'm glad Marina wrote with him. Why? It's a learning experience. Writing with someone else always adds more tools to one's box. Now, when Marina wants to write a song on her own, she has new methods to tap. Rick redeems himself in the song Valley of the Dolls, where in the line, "got a hole inside of me, OF ME," he takes Marina's voice to a place that's a cross between Enya and Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries.

Where's Radioactive?
Speaking of Dolores, Rick Nowels' production aims to be beautiful, atmospheric electronica and '90s pop - rock. The horrible Bubblegum Bitch, the record's first song in which Marina introduces the character of Electra Heart, is an example of solely the latter. Marina said that she kept Radioactive (an early single) off the album because it didn't fit in sonically. This is true, but Bubblegum Bitch fits in to an even lesser extent! It's excuse for a rock sound is so loud and grating, and the melody is completely amateur, to boot. In Rick's other songs, namely The State of Dreaming, Valley of the Dolls, and Hypocrates, the production begins with some gorgeous, ethereal synths, but then transitions into a cross between poor recreations of '90s pop-rock and karaoke Disney Princess. Once again, this causes Marina to sound as though she's playing POP star dress up. P.S. For some reason, I get the sense that Marina wrote the lyrics for Hypocrates about her father, as during her last album cycle, she always spoke about her dad instilling within her a sense of skepticism in regard to commercial superficiality. Though I'm sure she'll claim the song is about a former boyfriend, I have a feeling that in her new found love for all things fake, Marina took a shot at her dad for keeping her from what she enjoys.

Marina has said that with this record, she put less pressure on herself melodically. If she wrote a verse but couldn't figure out the chorus, or vice versa, she would go to a producer/songwriter for a complementary chorus or verse, respectively. Unfortunately, I suspect this was the case with The State of Dreaming, in which the lovely verses and pre-chorus don't quite fit the chorus, which I reckon was composed by Mister Nowels. However, the two tracks where this hodge-podge method works wonderfully are the Greg Kurstin - produced Starring Role and the Dr. Luke and Dipo - produced Lies. Both have gorgeous melodies and production, with the former featuring bone-chilling wind chimes peaking through the synths at the start of the song. My one issue with these two tracks is their hip-hop beat, which does not suit Marina in the least. As much divatude as she possesses (and I mean this in the best and worst ways), she has absolutely zero swagger. Leave the hip-hop beats to Lana Del Rey and Rihanna, please. This is why I prefer the acoustic version of Lies to the one on the album.

Greg Kurstin is the second best part of this project. While promoting her last record, Marina said that Oh No! (produced and co-written by Greg) was indicative of the bubblegum electro direction she wanted to head in. I imagine she came to this conclusion after listening to Lily Allen's masterpiece of a second album, It's Not Me, It's You, on which Greg created exactly that. Thus, she wrote and recorded the first song for Electra Heart with him two years ago. It is known as Living Dead, and it is absolutely gorgeous. The production and melody are fantastic, but what I like best are the lyrics. They tap into Marina's depressive state, something she wrote about ad nauseum on The Family Jewels, making that album utterly relatable and life-like, as opposed to Electra Heart, which is far more love-centric. I've already discussed Greg's work on Starring Role, above. The third and last track he worked on for this album was Power & Control, rumored to be the next single. While most of what Greg touches turns to gold, this song just doesn't do it for me. This is the one track Greg produced but did not write with Marina. Instead, she chose to pen it with Steve Angello of Swedish House Mafia. It seems that Greg does his best production work on the songs he co-writes; otherwise, he has trouble translating the emotion of the lyrics and melody into the production. My case in point? Kelly Clarkson's Stronger, which Greg produced, but did not write. Most people will say that song is amazing, and I do think it's good, but Greg has set such a high standard for himself on his co-written work with Lily, Ke$ha (Animal - I want to cry every time I listen!), and Marina, that it's hard to settle for anything less.

Now, to the best two cuts! Liam Howe, the man behind most of The Family Jewels, contributed two songs to Electra Heart, and those were the only ones solely composed by Marina. Teen Idle is an absolute heart-breaker, but not for the reason you may think. Rather than recreating Katy Perry's Teenage Dream, Marina sings about the sense of regret some of us face when looking back at our teenage years, wishing we had lived them to the fullest, partying and socializing "instead of being 16 and burning up a Bible, feeling super, super, super suicidal," which I relate to quite literally. Those sentiments were brought to the surface when Marina attended a fashion show by British designer Ashish, where she spotted a bubble-gum grunge sweater featuring the wordplay Teen Idle.

It's quite interesting that the person who best reshaped Marina's sound is the one who initially built it. Liam has adapted incredibly to Marina's vision, allowing her to evolve, instead of revolve. In Teen Idle, she maintains the straight-shot honesty and melodic creativity of The Family Jewels, but adopts a fresh electronic coating while shedding the New Wave. My favorite part is when a chorus of children joyfully yell out "feeling super super super," as though they're about to follow it with "awesome." Instead, Marina breaks up that happiness by singing the intellectually expected (seeing as most of the song is quite depressive) but emotionally unexpected "suicidal."

Marina and Liam recording her debut, The Family Jewels


Liam repeats his success on Fear and Loathing, a piece that reminds me of Madonna's Power of Goodbye. This is the most honest song on the album, where Marina shows us her true self without any character B.S. The track is about Marina's journey. On her first album, she shunned radio friendly POP in order to make herself seem credible. She claimed to loathe the genre, when in fact, she quite enjoyed it. Her search for credibility didn't pay off, as Marina struggled to find the success encountered by other alternative artists, like Florence Welch and Ellie Goulding. When she finally realized that her angst against mainstream POP stars like Katy Perry was based in her own insecurity, she wrote a song about it (and subsequently toured with Katy, but this is irrelevant), and thus, we have the truly brilliant Fear and Loathing.

What seems to boggle my mind is Marina's desire to get away from writing her own melodies when she is one of the best composers of her time, fusing theatrical hooks with those that are quite POP. Interestingly enough, her lyrics are actually more poetic and honest when she devotes time to writing the music and not just the words. Does she have faith in herself? Does she not realize the magnitude of her own musical talent? Maybe Marina's lack of formal training / technical knowledge causes her to question her abilities. Or, maybe her perfectionism causes unbearable amounts of stress and OCD, so she'd rather limit the pots she places her hands in and leave some responsibility to others. This I can understand, but a better solution might involve learning some relaxation techniques so that she can depressurize and comfortably do it all, as she is one of the few who truly can.

Unapologetically,

Gregory

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