Marina Diamandis releases cathartic concept album
Marina and the Diamonds is a tricky proposition. The name alone sounds like it should be attached to a female-fronted 1980s new wave combo but belongs, instead, to one Marina Lambrini Diamandis, whose surname means "diamonds" in Greek. As the solo artist who sounds like a group puts it when she describes her relationship with her fans: "I am Marina. You are the Diamonds."
Marina's music isn't typical either. Her 2010 debut, The Family Jewels, was undoubtedly a pop album, but it didn't sound like Justin Bieber or Rihanna. It was an exuberant, effervescent and sometimes exasperating musical souffle blending glam, new wave and piano ballads.
It topped this rich mixture with sledgehammer pop hooks, loads of vocal tics and lyrics about being stalked by cutlery. "Ten silver spoons coming after me!" Marina trilled on Mowgli's Road. To call the album "kooky" would be accurate but reductive.
The Family Jewels performed respectably, peaking at number five on the UK albums chart and selling well enough to earn a US release. But it wasn't the blockbuster hit that Marina wanted. When she sang "I'm only after success" on Oh No!, the album's fourth single, she wasn't being entirely facetious.
Indeed, Marina has never hidden her ambitions. Raised in rural Wales by her Welsh mother and Greek father, she moved to London at the age of 18 to pursue a singing career. In the city, she dropped out of four separate music degrees and auditioned for everything from a West End musical to a croissant commercial. She even tried disguising herself as a man to win a place in a boyband.
Her efforts finally bore fruit when she began writing and recording songs on her laptop. Coining the name Marina and the Diamonds, she sold homemade CDs through her MySpace page and cultivated an online fanbase. This led to a deal with 679 Recordings, a division of Warner Music Group, a major UK record label. The label released The Family Jewels in February 2010 and will put out the second Marina and the Diamonds album later this month.
Her fierce ambition hasn't dissipated either. In fact, Marina's actually raised the stakes. For her second album, she's worked with some of the top songwriters in contemporary pop. Among her collaborators are former Ivor Novello winner Greg Kurstin, former Madonna co-writer Rick Nowels and Lukasz "Dr Luke" Gottwald, a man credited on 12 US number one singles since 2007.
So, in line with current chart trends, the new Marina and the Diamonds album has a shinier, more electronic sound than the first one, but it's no simple pop platter. Electra Heart is a kind of concept album on which Marina adopts the roles of four different "Archetypes": Teen Idle, Primadonna, Homewrecker and something she calls "Su-Barbie-A".
These "Archetypes" can be tricky to pin down though. Teen Idle, Primadonna and Homewrecker each has a song named after her, but Su-Barbie-A doesn't. And it's not obvious which "Archetype" Marina is playing on the album's other tracks - or actually, if she's playing to one at all. Marina seems to admit as much, saying that the "Archetypes" are "more of a visual project".
Thankfully, the inspiration behind the Electra Heart concept is generally less ambiguous. Marina says she wanted to "personify love and the bitter misery of heartbreak" after enduring a relationship in which she felt "unwanted" and "unlovable".
She addresses this situation directly on one of the album's best songs, a sad ballad called Lies. "I don't wanna admit that we're not gonna fit - no, I'm not the type that you like," she sings mournfully.
And she's just as blunt on Starring Role, a weepie that features the revealing line: "Come on baby, let's just get drunk and forget that we don't get on."
But playing devil's advocate here, there's an obvious question - is the heartbroken ex-girlfriend just one more role for Marina to play? Is it another of her "Archetypes"?
She insists not. "There are only two or three songs on the record specifically about that certain boy, but that experience set the tone for the whole album," she told me.
Indeed, Marina reckons the record's colder characters are also a response to the hurt she experienced in this relationship. She says she used the Electra Heart concept to "flip the situation around".
But how exactly? "If you've had your heart broken, the last thing you want to do is go out there and give your heart to someone new, for fear of it happening again. Hence you become a heartbreaker - someone who screws other people over for fun. It's refreshing!"
Never the most subtle of songwriters, Marina does this pretty literally on the album. Electra Heart opens with a pop-punky number named Bubblegum B*tch. It also features a song called Homewrecker - on which Marina boasts "she broke a million hearts just for fun" - and the equally self-explanatory Primadonna.
So, Marina uses heartbreak as creative fuel throughout her new album, but in two very different ways. At times, she casts a magnifying glass over her failed relationship, inviting us to examine its flaws. "The only time you open up is when we get undressed," she sings on Starring Role. "Oh, I cringe so much when I think of people hearing Starring Role. It's really terrifying to let people know that you were unwanted or unlovable to someone," she told me.
Yet elsewhere, she combats her regrets by reimagining herself as the ultimate romantic game-player. "I'll chew you up and spit you out, because that's what young love is all about," she vows on Bubblegum B*tch.
This duel approach is confusing and contradictory - but it's quintessentially Marina. Yet despite her inconsistency, and the ambiguity surrounding those "Archetypes", Electra Heart isn't a chore to listen to. It's got too many catchy choruses for that.
That's not to say it feels like a surefire smash. Several songs sound like kissing cousins to recent Katy Perry hits, but they're relatives with an edge: odder, darker, more melodramatic.
And Marina still likes to mix the hooky with the kooky. Homewrecker is one of the album's catchiest tracks, but it almost suggests Elizabeth Hurley covering a Goldfrapp song.
The State of Dreaming, another highlight, recalls cheesy 1980s pop troupe Bucks Fizz. And songs with punning titles like Hypocrates - another Electra Heart standout - don't generally become hit singles.
It's also difficult to predict how Marina's fanbase will respond to the record's subject matter. Will teenage girls warm to a singer who declares herself a Primadonna, a Bubblegum B*tch and a Homewrecker?
"Maybe very young fans won't get it, but anyone over the age of 12 probably will," she told me. "My sense of humour influences my work a lot and I hope people realise this. But nothing that I do is ever 100 per cent satirical - I mean, I can definitely be a prima donna."
So, for all her pop smarts, Marina and the Diamonds remains a tricky proposition. Her new album is slicker than her debut, but she could still be too outre for mainstream success. Yet she's clearly too glittery and ambitious to be an indie darling.
However, for listeners willing to explore the lacuna between the two, there are gems aplenty on Electra Heart.
Nick Levine is a regular contributor to The Review