The title of Marina’s latest album, Electra Heart, evokes images of a Cinderella-type character throwing her glass slippers to the wind and crying mascara tears, unable to cope with the possibility of a happily never after.
Last August, Marina Diamandis gave a confusing interview to the website Popjustice. She explained her change of direction, from the self-consciously arty singer-songwriterisms of her 2010 debut The Family Jewels – with its similarities to Sparks and Lene Lovich – to the more straightforward pop approach of Electra Heart, an album assembled by a selection of writers and producers for hire who have previously turned out hits for Ronan Keating, Dido, Katy Perry and Britney Spears.
But the real problem is that since that interview, another female singer-songwriter has emerged playing a character that portrays the corrupting, tragic side of the American dream with a distinct Mulholland Drive/Paris, Texas vibe – sleazy motels, insouciant smoking, pastel-shaded 50s clothes and bad-boy boyfriend all included. It would appear any similarity to the former Lizzie Grant is purely coincidental – certainly Electra Heart sounds nothing like Born to Die – so it’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for Diamandis, who now finds herself promoting her new direction while apparently dressed as Lana del Ray.
On Fear and Loathing and Teen Idle, they strip back most of that album’s excesses to let the melodies breathe and focus attention on Diamandis’s singing: coolly enunciated and slightly folky, her voice is much more appealing than you might have realised, overshadowed as it was on The Family Jewels by her apparently unquenchable desire to shriek, deploy a horrible vibrato and do animal impersonations. The former is a ballad that seems to address the artistic confusion arising from her debut album’s relative failure; it does that in a more straightforward, affecting way than opener Bubblegum Bitch, a heavy-handed attempt at the kind of self-fulfilling I-will-be-huge prophecy that filled The Fame by Lady Gaga. Teen Idle, meanwhile, twists the cynicism of the whole Electra Heart concept into an intriguingly nasty lyric that subverts the message of a million Hollywood teen films by apparently suggesting adolescents would be better off trying to curry favor with the vacuous social elite in their school than expressing their individuality.
Enter Electra Heart, a bubblegum pop concept album that most music critics haven’t been able to analyze it without drawing ham-fisted comparisons to Del Rey’s Born to Die. True, both performers are women performing highly stylized pop songs about relationships, but the comparisons end there.
Her alter-ego’s second album is “a vehicle to portray part of the American dream, with elements of Greek tragedy”. Accordingly, Marina/Electra wears a sparkling, full-skirted prom dress, and carries a toy poodle of the sort found in handbags, yet she never actually tells us about the archetype she’s sending up, or why a girl from Abergavenny is so fascinated with the US. There’s a bronchial rasp to her voice that calls to mind Courtney Love, another enthusiastic American-dream satirist. It’s just one more vocal tic on top of the familiar yodels and whoops that give an amdram aspect to every song. No criticism intended: there may be a large helping of frustrated actor in Marina, but that makes her a sight more interesting than the Rihannas of the world.
The new tunes are steeped in melodrama, of course. On the mannered electropopper Homewrecker, she claims: “They call me homewrecker/ I broke a million hearts just for fun.” Starring Role, which pairs melancholy minor chords and a trundling bassline, contains the vow “I’ll never set you free”. If these delve into the dark side of the American dream, they’re about as “deep” as the perky hit Hollywood, which closes the set to the memorable sight of Marina pogoing. Yet pop is a better place for her presence.
One wonders what might have happened if Diamandis had just got on with making a second album herself, not worrying too much about commerciality or alter-egos or becoming everything she isn’t. If only someone would tell Diamandis it’s not all about fame and success. The key? Stop being such a Primadonna and focus on being yourself.