Yeah, that’s right, motherfucking double entry. Pssssshow! Did you hear that sound? That’s the sound of your tiny BRAINS being blown, yo! Don’t like it? Wanna lay down? Come at me, bro! COME AT ME!!!!
Ahem… We enter the top 80 [EIGHTY] with an artist whom I’ve long loved who has never achieved the commercial success her AMAZINGNESS deserves, and a debut album by an artist* doing a lot of Marina’s old tricks and the obvious inheritor of the Welsh/Greek Queen’s mantle of master (mistress?? No, can’t use that word, the perverts have ruined it) of pitch perfect pop music that’s unafraid to be a little weird- frequently A LOT weird- and can hide quite profound sentiments behind its bubble gum pop aesthetics, playfully ironic one second but emotionally sincere the next. Yet, rather than challenging Marina for the title of ‘Favourite Cult Alt-Pop Act Who Sells Fuck All Records’, somehow her debut album has sold 1,304,000 equivalent album units (343,000 physical sales), which, yeah, it’s no ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ (five. Fucking. Million?!), but it’s about as much as albums sell these days, and was the biggest selling album of 2019 for a long time. It might still be. What am I, Mr. Research? Get fucked. Released a month after Eilish’s debut, Marina’s first album in four years was going to set up a brutal battle between the master and the jumped up apprentice who has managed to commercially outperform her influence more than a hundred times over. Marina officially removing the ‘…and the Diamonds’ suffix from her name was like her removing all shackles, ready to go to war. She even stylises it as ‘MARINA’, like she’s screaming her name to remind these little upstarts who the real OG is! Billie’s gonna get pwnnnnnned!! Grab your popcorn, kids, this is sure to be brutal!
(*whom I, ahem, advised you to keep an eye on two years ago)
Only… it really isn’t…
At the moment when Eilish’s success (and frequent name dropping of Marina) made it obvious that artists whose eccentricity pushes them beyond the accepted boundaries of pop convention were very much in vogue again, Marina removes herself from the fight. Whatever ‘the Diamonds’ were, they obviously contained much of Marina’s spark and her singular talent. ‘L&F’ is either a misjudged, mistimed and mistaken attempt to finally achieve the commercial success so many fans have convinced her she is owed by repositioning herself as a serious and contemplative (spit) mature female singer songwriter, capitalising on a trend that died the last time Birdy had a hit. Or…
“It took me well over a year to figure out that a lot of my identity was tied up in who I was as an artist… and there wasn’t much left of who I was.”
…or she decided to strip back her music, leave out all the ‘gimmicks’, all the ironic winks toward camp culture, put away childish things, and just show us (ugh) who she really is. And ‘who she really is’ is unfortunately a dull, unexciting AOR act with lyrics that only deal in the most banal platitudes. I don’t know which one’s worse. No, it’s definitely the latter, isn’t it?
When once Marina would stun gun the ears with rough edged but joyful pop that sounded like if Max Martin had replaced Richey Edwards in the Manic Street Preachers, ‘L&F’ is largely uninspired grown up pop that would have probably made the Radio 2 playlist in 2002. I mean, it’d definitely be Dido’s best album, but let’s not get weighed down in comparative logistics here. Marina may have done her fair share of dabbling in commercial sounding songs, but she would still drop a killer line like ‘Wish I’d been, I wish I’d been, a teen, teen idle/Wish I’d been a prom queen, fighting for the title/Instead of being sixteen and burning up a bible/Feeling super, super, super suicidal‘ to ensure that there was always at least a spark of subversion and malevolence behind the bubblegum facade. On ‘L&F’, sadly, there are no such incendiary suggestions of rebellion, and almost every lyric veers from platitude to faux sincerity back to a nodding headed banality. Yes, Marina, I guess you do have to be Soft to be Strong, how profound. I mean, shit, the album fucking begins with an empty nonentity of a lyric, that I might consider ‘pretentious’ if it weren’t so boneheaded and simplistic. Or, in fact, if I hadn’t mercilessly took down the very concept of ‘pretentiousness‘ in 2016.
I envy the birds high up in the trees
They live out their lives so purposefully
I envy the spiders, the squirrels and seeds
They all find their way automatically
Much like The Everlasting on ‘TIMTTMY‘, Handmade Heaven lets the listener know exactly what kind of album they’re getting, and that they should really start lowering their expectations. Marina is despondent, she’s browbeaten, she’s envying dumb animals because at least they know what they’re doing, and she has a rhyming dictionary that she’s not afraid to use. Really, Marina? You envy the seeds?? If there was a lyrical theme to ‘L&F’ it would be Marina having no idea what to do and no direction, and just writing songs about that, rather than finding things to do or looking for a direction. You know those piss poor blog entries I do around no.28 when I can’t think of anything to write so instead just blather on about how I can’t think of anything to write with one eye on the word count? Well, this album’s THAT.
The worst offender though, is Too Be Human, which is what you come up with when you’re writing for an album that openly admits that you can’t think of anything to say, but still want to write a political song. It’s politics without the actual politics, just phrases and lines that Marina trusts will sound political, without getting into the sticky area of beliefs, principles and interesting things to say. ‘Go to Russia, see the Red Square/Lenin’s body lying dead there/From Kyoto, Hiroshima/Watch the black cloud crawling nearer’. Aaaaaaaaaaaand what? Those are definitely things, I’ll give you that, but I don’t see what the significance of… Oh, I see, ‘All the people living in, living in the world today/Reunited by our love, reunited by our pain‘? So how does Lenin’s body work into that? Love? Pain? Is Marina getting Lenin mixed up with Stalin? Its ‘Everywhere you go you will see/They are just like you and me’ line being this albums ‘The world is full of refugees…’ clunker. Most puzzling of all though, is the line ‘There were riots in America/Just when things were getting better‘
At least Marina admits in the song that ‘Still, I don’t know what it means’.
Yeah, I know I promised there’d be no more Manics, but just let me have this, alright? Until we get to the top 10 where I explain why every album is great because it sounds exactly like The Manics. But one of the reasons that I fell in love with Marina and the Diamonds was that she always struck me as the pop version of The Greatest Band Ever and not simply because of the Welsh connection*. Marina’s lyrics may have never dealt explicitly with politics or wider issues, she still had a way with a Manics-like ‘Anxiety is freedom!/Cenotaph souvenir!/Mess of eyeliner and spray paint!/Dumb flag scum!/Culture, alienation, boredom and despair!/A childhood glimpse of pornography!/Life is lead weights, pendulum died Pure or lost, spectator or crucified!!’ flashy and stirring lyrical flourish. She shared the band’s early penchant for trashy reimagining of classic 50s American glamour, with full lipstick and pom-poms her version of eyeliner and feather boas. She shared their morbid joy of realising the world’s fucked so you may as well bop up and down while you scream. Most importantly though, as I alluded to in my ‘Futurology‘ reappraisal, both acts knew the importance of appearing fucking silly sometimes. Marina was never scared of sounding absolutely ridiculous, a ‘drahm-beats-drap‘ here, an ‘oh my gosh you look just like Shakira!’ there, a ‘plump and ripe pinker than Shepherd’s delight‘ sprinkled on top. There’s nothing silly about ‘L&F’ at all, it’s all grey shades and sad eyes, so freaking serious and so freaking solemn. It’s by quite a distance the least fun that Marina has ever been.
(*Marina is the least Welsh Welsh person imaginable. Which, admittedly, so were The Manics until approximately 1998. The whole Wales Issue was something I didn’t even have time to even glance over in my ‘TIMTTMY’ piece because of the pretty tight 3’500 words limit. Listen to Ready for Drowning though, it’s all there. Alright, now I’m gonna stop…)
Billie Eilish, however, is very fucking silly. Her debut album contains goofy spoken word intros, she stops songs just just to go ‘duh!’, she samples The American Office, names songs after lines from Sherlock, which is a show that only idiots like so is inherently very silly. The album is an absolute bucket of horse tranquilisers in terms of fun though. People might lazily state that her 17 years of age (possibly more now, no time to research) makes her ‘naturally’ silly, because somehow the teenage years are just a very silly time of life. I resent that, you’re not naturally more silly at any age, you’re just more likely to choose to be dull the older you get (but it is always a choice). Likewise the emotions and situations she chronicles on her debut album- these aren’t inherently teenage or immature, you have exactly the same feelings when you’re 42, you just start to believe that house prices are an interesting topic and start to resent paying taxes. Despite the 15+ year difference in their ages, Marina could have just as easily come out with an album as fun and as honestly sincere as ‘When We Go To Sleep Where Do We Go’, it’s nothing to do with age. Billie Eilish couldn’t have possibly made ‘L&H’ though, you can only come out with art that despondent after you’ve felt at least a decade of good, traditional adult misery.
Soon after the release of the album, Marina released a message to her Social Face Gram:
It’s difficult to say whether Marina was hurt by the criticism of the album, or hurt by the fact that she fucking knows the album’s garbage, but the release of ‘L&F’ was obviously not a happy one for her. It’s equally confusing whether she’s in a mess because the new album wasn’t what she really wanted to do or because it was, whether completely from the heart or she was ‘distracted from her own strengths’.
Maybe she was just feeling dismayed when she considered the fact that, if she was 15 years younger now in 2019, ready to start her career with songs the quality of Shampain and Obsessions in her back pocket, there’s no reason she couldn’t have been as big a deal as Billie Eilish is now. She would have Billie Eilish’s route to success, of posting songs online and building a following based entirely on your own talent, your own personality, of appealing directly to the fans until your own worth is proven enough that all record industry’s need to do is ensure more people are aware of you. Marina came up in an era where she still had to prove her worth to music labels and radio playlist compilers. In 2010, even Marina was considered a little too weird to warrant much major label attention, in 2019 a seventeen year old girl with Tourette’s syndrome simply demanded the wider world pay attention.
She posted this not long before her UK tour. I was going to see her in Manchester, with the real worry that this might be a unhappy slog through the motions as she questioned whether this was something she even wanted to still be doing.
She was fucking amazing. A peerless pop performer amazingly adept at playing to a crowd all to willing to eat out of her hand. I think perhaps Marina was as blown away as I was with the raw and organic love for her there still was. To be honest, I’d previously assumed Marina was a bit like WWE wrestling, in that they’re both ostensibly meant for kids, but are only enjoyed by sad middle aged men. But at the Apollo I was among the oldest people there in a crowd of 4’000 fans that new all the words to even the less memorable songs off an album that was released barely a few weeks before. The experience must have reignited Marina’s passion a little, as she arranged another UK tour before the end of the year.
And, you know what? It isn’t that bad an album. It starts a bit of a stinker, admittedly, but it improves dramatically during it’s second half, peaking during a mid-album trilogy of End of the Earth, Believe in Love and Life is Strange that would perhaps be considered among her best work if the production were a little more dynamic. I’ve actually underrated both of these albums massively. ‘L&F’ is by far Marina’s weakest collection (I revisited all the albums before seeing her live, which will be reflected in my best songs of the year) but it’s absolutely fine and I wouldn’t get half as upset over it if it wasn’t by one of my favourite artists, and Billie’s is underrated because… well… I had to put it one place above Marina’s for this whole entry to work… So here it is…
Marina, you asked for us to stop calling you ‘underrated’. I think that’s fair enough. I don’t think you’re underrated at all. Maybe some critics aren’t huge fans, but the 4’000 screaming fans you can play to seem to rate you pretty highly. Maybe don’t get so upset over the former when the latter is still so enamored with you.
Even after a dogshit album like this.
Don’t pay attention to that thing I just said!
And your next album will be on the list as well. Because I fucking love you.
Hey, it’s not nothin’