After four years away from the musical fray, the Greco-Welsh pop phenomenon Marina Diamandis returns with a fourth album and a UK tour that takes in the Royal Albert Hall. It’s here that Craig Austin catches her take to the stage without her ‘Diamonds’ in the same week of Love + Fear‘s release.
Despite the tens of millions of streams, the obsessively loyal fan-base, and the top 10 records on both sides of the Atlantic, Marina Diamandis can no longer claim to be the critical darling of yore. Having first emerged in 2010 via the spine-tingling art-pop of Mowgli’s Road she seemed to have swiftly and inadvertently disillusioned many of those who first rushed to claim her as some kind of contemporary Kate Bush; an unconventional striking beauty with an atypical avant-garde take on the pop form and an accompanying palette of songs laced with universal themes of nature, sex and anxiety.
Its opening line: ‘Ten silver spoons coming after me’ was constructed of imagery rooted in ethereal whimsy, yet was spat out with the conviction of an Armalite-toting zealot. The song and its parent album The Family Jewels, though radiating electric pop ‘otherness’, nevertheless struggled to translate its inherent mystery to the live stage. This writer recalls an early show at London’s Tabernacle in which Marina’s jewels were somewhat tarnished by a conventional ‘band’ performance and an all too evident desire to be adored – never a good pop look.
That Diamandis was subsequently convinced to pursue a more orthodox musical path, culminating in a somewhat pedestrian work of polished L.A. electro-pop (2012’s Electra Heart), appears by some to have never been forgiven. 2015’s Froot nevertheless represented a welcome return to form, not least because it was evidently the work of a rejuvenated single-minded artist, rather than a committee-driven major-label project. Froot saw Diamandis demonstrating that songs about nature don’t have to be performed on a lute made of wattle and daub by an earnest grizzled man in hessian pants. They can come sprinkled with glitter too. They can arrive both plump and ripe. They can be golden and delicious. And they can rattle along at 120 BPM in a flurry of Hollywood glamour and flirtatious mischief.
From its Seinfeld-aping bass intro to its playful Froo-oot/Joo-oose refrain, Froot’s title track is a beguiling pop thrill and as Diamandis – now shorn of her titular Diamonds – performs it upon the raised steps of London’s venerable Royal Albert Hall we witness the abundant harvest that occurs when a girl from Monmouthshire fulfils her ambition of creating something fit to grace the dance floor of Studio 54. It’s a heathen disco stomper that somehow succeeds in embracing both the unrepentant sexuality of Grace Jones – Baby, I am plump and ripe / I’m pinker than shepherd’s delight – and the pagan pastoral imagery of The Wicker Man. One in which the timeless pop theme of being cast adrift ‘like an apple you forgot’ comes draped in the trappings of nature’s ruthlessness: Birds and worms will come for me / the cycle of life is complete.
Accompanied by a hyperactive collection of performance artists busting a frantic range of ballet, street and cheerleading moves, Marina is mainly here to promote her latest release, however; a more stripped-back affair in both content and imagery and one whose sales figures (it will go Top 5 this week) have so far been warmer than its initial critical reception. In the spirit of its title, and much like life itself, her live show is split between themes of Love + Fear. These are songs of portent and introspection and it is a brave artist who opens to an expectant and excitable Friday night audience with Handmade Heaven, a song entirely stripped of disco exotica.
Yet the artistic heights to which Marina often struggles to reach within the framework of Love + Fear are repeatedly realised within this deeply impressive live performance. Whether seated at an electric piano for songs of love and reflection or kitted out in a utilitarian PVC number that may well have been half-inched from the V&A’s Mary Quant exhibition just down the road, Diamandis takes her fans – the original embodiment of her ‘diamonds’, let’s not forget – by the hand and leads them through a back catalogue that shimmers and shelters in equal measures.
Marina’s impressive vocal range and sense of occasion are perhaps best demonstrated in the unquestionable highpoint of the evening’s performance, her current single and state-of-the-human-race treatise To Be Human; a world in which ‘the missiles and the bombs sound like symphonies gone wrong’. A song that might as easily soundtrack a walk to the altar as a walk to the gallows, it demonstrates the artist at her most emotionally powerful and its accompanying video montage of Kings Road punks, Soviet Moscow, archive geisha imagery and Trump-inspired race conflict is especially emotive within this rarified live setting.
For all of Diamandis’s myriad career pivots her live show remains an enigmatic mix of celebration and introspection, evoking both Madonna (before she became awful) and La Bush (minus the worst of her prog excesses). Encompassing elements of Marina’s art-pop roots and subsequent major label ambition, while consistently defying immediate categorisation, it strikes me how tragic it would be if the true jewels of Wales’s early 21st-century pop artistry were to be consumed by the mediocrity of so many of its more commercially successful, yet ultimately lumpen rock bands. Because Accü, Gwenno and Marina demonstrate that this is a nation capable of creating actual electro-pop magic. And for this Greco-Welsh daughter of Abergavenny, magic is what it’s always been about.
Pop stars are ultimately destined to let you down; it’s both part of the deal and part of the appeal. But lay off Marina, eh? She’s just gone and made one of the best pop singles of the year, her live show is a pom-pom wielding thrill-ride, and killing her won’t bring back your boring old apples.
To keep up to date with all things Marina, click here.
Craig Austin is an avid contributor to Wales Arts Review.