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MARINA - Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land Music Album Reviews

MARINA - Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land Music Album Reviews
The unmistakably dramatic pop singer seeks the divine feminine, embracing a bold yet soft aesthetic that’s more effective than some of her lyrics.

Twelve years into her career, it’s hard to imagine that Marina Diamandis was once a MySpace artist marketed as a quirky Britpop-ish act. Her whole career is so thoroughly of these times. She was fan-forward from the beginning; her original stage name, Marina and the Diamonds, made her fans part of her persona as the eponymous gems, and they rewarded her with devotion. She made just-outside-the-mainstream pop before such music was the Spotify-playlist default; she studded her lyrics with light social commentary when that was still somewhat rare on the Top 40 charts.

Through it all, Marina’s musical persona has remained unmistakable: dramatic, theatrical, her heart worn not just on her sleeve but in a shiny, spangled, and wide-open frame. Her voice spans throaty lows to fluting highs; her lyrics are forthright and low-irony, for better and worse. As an acting coach might say, she’d rather be big and wrong than tiny and right. (From an acting coach, this is a compliment.) But her music has morphed over time, thanks to a series of fast-replaced collaborators: pre-disgrace Dr. Luke and his unsubtle sound on Electra Heart; relative unknown Faultline producing more muted work on Froot; a veritable songwriters’ camp on Love + Fear; several Clean Bandit features during a short-lived EDM phase. Marina has expressed unease about the shifts—Electra Heart made her feel “kind of ashamed, like this isn’t really who I am,” she told The New York Times, while the lower-key Froot made her fear she wasn’t ambitious enough. Her unease is understandable: She is thoroughly herself, in front of so many green screens.

Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land is Marina’s boldest music yet. She wants you to know it from the first seconds of the title track: a glam schaffel beat that Marina turns into her own personal pulpit. She swoons and evangelizes and delivers rapidfire hooks—the big one shares a melody with “Womanizer,” but as hooky pop hits go, you could nick far worse. “Venus Fly Trap” might not much say much that Marina hasn’t already said on 2010’s “Hollywood,” but the song is far more brash—it sounds carnivorous—and Marina casts herself not as an outsider gawking at the town, but a star victorious over it: “Why be a wallflower when you can be a Venus fly trap?” She sought out female producers for the album, most prominently Jennifer Decilveo (Bat for Lashes, Beth Ditto)—which shouldn’t be noteworthy, except they’re so rare in the pop industry that in 12 years, Marina has only worked with a handful. Chalk it up to creative synergy, but there’s a muscle to Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land that she’d missed for quite some time.

Marina would probably chalk it up to more than synergy. Recruiting women collaborators ties into the album’s theme: The “ancient dreams” are largely divine-sacred-feminine stuff, and she’s eager to talk about them. “New America” has a decently spooky arrangement—frantic pizzicato strings, vocals arranged like ominous choirs, faint poltergeist SFX in the background. Like Halsey’s “New Americana,” Rihanna’s “American Oxygen,” and JoJo’s “American Mood” before it—and that’s just the past few years—its social commentary isn’t wrong, just a little more overt than pop songs usually get (“Who gave you jazz, hip-hop, rock’n’roll and the blues?”), but ultimately feels like box-ticking. “Purge the Poison” doesn’t get more specific so much as it gets more, period. The track is full-to-bulging with tense handclaps, dramatic vocal swoops, and motormouth delivery of keywords. It wants to be a curative for every societal ill in the zeitgeist: COVID-19, racism, capitalism, misogyny, “every single war,” Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo, the collective societal whoops-my-bad over 2000s-era Britney Spears coverage (written, Marina says, before the buzzy Framing Britney Spears documentary, though she admits it was tangential.) The remix, with Russian feminist provocateurs Pussy Riot, adds even more.

Marina doesn’t have space to say much besides “these things exist, and they’re bad.” She does have punchlines—about the sultan of Brunei, whose anti-gay policies led to boycotts of his real estate investments, she quips: “I guess that’s why he bought the campest hotel in L.A.!” But her delivery muffles the punch, rushing to get to the next point, and those points muffle the message. As she sings in “Purge the Poison,” women hold only about one-quarter of government positions. But women contain multitudes: Currently among that quarter are women whose supposed divine femininity didn’t stop them from mocking a colleague’s transgender child or calling the LGBTQ-rights Equality Act “dangerous” and “disgusting.” The narrow focus muddies the album’s politics. To her credit, Marina has welcomed critique, addressing similar comments from fans by saying, “I like seeing [these] comments…it does make me think about my own place.” Some more thought, and a rewrite, might have aimed her lyrics more true.

Besides, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land makes its point through its aesthetic. There are a lot of ballads here; the sheer quantity of them, their lacy ornamentation and quiet maximalism, evoke a soft-focus femininity. The music in “Man’s World” is something between a lament and a swoon, with long curlicues of melisma, distant strings, a lyrical collage of François Boucher cherubs, Marilyn Monroe’s Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow, and Jayne Mansfield’s Pink Palace. “Highly Emotional People” is a ballad in the Sarah McLachlan tradition, made of light piano, floaty soprano, and enough reverb to fill an ancient shrine. “Pandora’s Box” returns antique dramatics to the modern ballad—rolling cello, Old Hollywood strings, all in a flowing arrangement. Everything is delicate, but nothing is muted. This aesthetic certainly isn’t for everybody, but after her ambivalent pop experiments, Marina no longer needs her albums to be. It’s a beacon out for the highly emotional people of the world, of whom she clearly is one; it’s for her.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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MARINA - Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land Music Album Reviews MARINA - Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Thursday, June 24, 2021 Rating: 5

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