Craig Austin reviews Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, the new electro-pop album from Marina taking aim at inequality and global politics with a characteristically bold, idiosyncratic edge.
The early signs were admittedly promising, the artist bursting out from the album’s teaser cover image like a fully realised Power Puff Girl, a self-styled super-hero in the rarefied realm of the MCU (Marina Comic Universe). This, coupled with a drip-drip promotional campaign of electrifying electronica, suggested a welcome counterpoint to 2019’s sedate, almost detached, Love + Fear. The question, as has often been the case with Marina Diamandis though, is whether now is the time that the perfectly honed constituent pieces of her glittering pop construct would finally come together to create the artistic masterpiece that so many of us have always hoped she was capable of.
Holed up in Californian isolation throughout the period of The Unpleasantness, Diamandis has seemingly been mainlining CNN from dusk to dawn. Appalled by the state of the world in which we inhabit, yes. But equally inspired and invigorated by the political and social change that has played out across the streets of Minneapolis, London, and Bristol. A revolutionary cycle that has women and people of colour at its front and centre. One that has torn down the shit-stained effigies of colonial slave traders and struck fear into the coal-black hearts of the entertainment industry’s most egregious sexual predators. ‘Nothing’s hidden anymore’, Marina declares within the chorus of Purge the Poison, a pop primal scream of thrilling insurgency that achieves its ultimate potency via a deviant collaborative remix with Pussy Riot. To Diamandis, the global pandemic is no historic blip. Both it, and the seismic global events that occurred in its viral slipstream represent a permanent shift in our relationship with the planet on which we live, and the inequitable old rules of human engagement: It’s a new world order, everything just falls away / Our life as we knew it now belongs to yesterday
Rebirth and renaissance, either personal or within the natural world, have been consistent themes of Marina’s output. A premise perhaps most effectively realised in 2014’s Froot, a beguiling pop collision of sex, nature and pagan tradition that was as plump and ripe as it declared itself to be. Ancient Dreams… though rooted in similar themes, is far more political in tone. Its neon laser sights trained upon the destruction of the planet, the global oppression of women and the still-thriving centuries-old industry of male hypocrisy. And when Marina’s lyrical blows land they do so with a deeply satisfying ‘oof!’. A satisfaction perhaps best exemplified by a righteous take-down in Man’s World of the owner of The Beverly Hills Hotel, once home to Marilyn Monroe’s famous bungalow:
Owned by a sheik who killed thousands of gay men
I guess that’s why he bought the campest hotel in LA then
Bonus points are to be awarded too to the same song for its opening line, ‘Cheeks are rosy like a Boucher cherub’. I don’t know about you, but I would love pop music to be stuffed full of things like this again. The Easter eggs and curios that would once have sent fans of Bryan Ferry scurrying to an encyclopaedia, and those of Amy Winehouse to Google. The time-honoured cultural entryism of the autodidact, one that seeds and germinates on buses, in queues, and in tiny box bedrooms. The starting points of a cultural journey without end, but one that promises a number of glorious diversions en route. In this sense, and despite the lustrous sheen of its production, Marina’s worldview remains firmly rooted within the philosophy of outsider art. One that does not shy away from the trusted alt-pop themes of alienation, anxiety and fear. Lyrics that have resonated especially strongly with her huge LGBT fanbase. ‘You are not here to conform’, Diamandis declares repeatedly, a simple yet remarkably empowering message that pop has seemingly shied away from even hinting at of late, let alone shouting from the rooftops. A message now more important than ever given the pressing requirement to resist and defy the worst excesses of the malevolent ghouls who govern us.
Much of Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land takes its stylistic and musical cues from the 1980s. Though by this I mean the ‘lipstick and robots’ golden era of early 80s electro-pop, rather than the blouson-jacketed years of diminishing returns that succeeded it. Nowhere is this more evident than in its giddy title track, one whose chorus features a hypnotic key change that will super-charge your heart with the sheer manic thrill of it all. ‘I am the observer, I’m a witness of life’, Diamandis proclaims. ‘I live in the space between the stars and the skies’. Somehow, the artist succeeds in this articulation of artistic ‘otherness’ despite her towering social media presence. An adroit sleight of hand that she has achieved almost as effectively as Lana Del Rey. A peer perhaps not in a musical sense, but a soul sister nonetheless in the evocation of tainted glamour and stylised melancholia.
Yes, this album rhymes ‘witches’ with ‘bitches’ a little too frequently. And no, it can’t quite decide whether it’s a full-throated return to the electro art-pop of the artist’s early years that its teaser drops initially suggested that it might be. In this sense, it occasionally falls short of the masterpiece that it at times hints at. But what we are left to revel in is one of the most impressively confident and satisfying albums of recent years. One that exists precisely because of the year that we’ve all lived through, not despite it.
Not that Marina Diamandis will care about what I have to say about it, and quite right too. Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land packages up any deference or compromise she may have previously exhibited, either artistically or personally, and consigns it to the dustbin of history.
‘I’ve been a mother to everyone else’, she opines in the album’s piano-driven closer, Goodbye. A song that addresses head-on the personal heartbreak that permeates the latter half of the album. ‘To every motherfucker except myself’.
Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land by Marina is available to stream now on Spotify.
Craig Austin is a Wales Arts Review senior editor.