Album Review: MARINA – ‘Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land’

Studded with social commentary and with a severe lack of ‘diamonds’, pop’s quirky darling MARINA returns to form on Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land. At a brisk ten tracks, the album is a whirlwind dose of what makes the starlet great, and made for a witty dissection by Lilith Hudson.

Marina Diamandis, better known by her stage name MARINA (previously Marina and the Diamonds), released her much anticipated fifth studio album, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, earlier this month. Saturated with her iconic synth-y electropop sound with just the right balance between explosive tunes and introspective ballads, this album captures everything quintessentially MARINA.

The notion of personal identity is certainly something Diamandis celebrates in this album. With each of her albums she experiments with nuanced sounds and themes and in earlier interviews she pinned this down to never quite knowing where she belongs within the music scene, blaming her unique sound on her lack of musical background. Discussing her decision to drop ‘the diamonds’ from her stage name back in 2018 she announced on Twitter: “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.” But with her new album she owns her nonconformity and probes the different layers of her identity.

‘While the explosive delivery of her lyrics deserves credit, the trade-off is that many are lost with no time to pause and reflect.’

In her title track, the first on the album, she lays out that mission statement within the first minute, “you don’t have to be like everybody else / You don’t have to fit into the norm / You are not here to conform / I am here to take a look inside myself…,” her sincere, low-pitched declaratives reminding herself, and her listener, that it’s okay to be unconventional. Venus Fly Trap also explores the theme nonconformity, delving into the way Diamandis’ views herself as an artist: “I never quite fit in to that Hollywood thing / I didn’t play that game for the money or the fame.” She settled in LA indefinitely when the pandemic struck and after growing up in a small village in Wales, she certainly doesn’t meet the Hollywood stereotype; it’s unsurprising that struggles with personal identity came to the fore. But it is the way she embraces her eccentricity that is the reason fans love her so much.

Not one to shy away from addressing controversial issues and social ills, here the Welsh born singer-songwriter tackles them head on, an ode to the hugely unsettled socio-political climate that’s shaken the world throughout her writing process. The following three tracks all demonstrate this, tackling political themes and name-dropping a host of momentous occasions. Her first single from the album Man’s World released back in March 2020 explores Diamandis’ staunch feminist ideology with echoes of Taylor Swift’s The Man. New America attacks equally profound themes. Written in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the US, she delves into the prevalence of racism, police brutality, and long standing white privilege in the states: “You got a white picket fence and your Dad’s got a gun / And when you see the police there’s no reason to run.”

Like a vast array of music produced during the pandemic, Purge the Poison reflects the creative influence Diamandis’ time spent in isolation had on her music, but the track is problematic for several reasons. The pre-chorus communicates her realisation that humans are single-handedly destroying the planet, and that we’re to blame for the pandemic: “Quarantined all alone, Mother Nature’s on the phone / What have you been doing? Don’t forget I am your home / Virus come, fires burn until human beings learn…” While true on many levels, it’s hard not to read between the lines of the chorus: is Diamandis suggesting humans are the poison that deserve to be purged by the virus? While the lyrics go on to diagnose the purge-worthy ills as racism, misogyny and capitalism, the ambiguity is certainly problematic. Framing the underlying message around the theme of the pandemic seems unnecessary, and confuses more than it communicates. Also, while the explosive delivery of her rapid-fire lyrics deserves credit, the trade-off is that many lyrics are lost with no time to pause and reflect. For me, much of the meaning was lost is a scramble of words that only made sense when following the lyrics along.

Personally, the more melancholy ballads on the latter half of the album rate higher. These tracks have rolling melodic hooks that show off Diamandis’ distinctive mezzo-soprano vocals, most notably in the chorus of Pandora’s Box, a track with a sound which bares similarity to her debut album, The Family Jewels. She also shows off her higher pitch on Highly Emotional People, a track with a haunting reverb as she addresses her struggles with mental health. Personal struggles with anxiety and depression are something Diamandis has spoken openly about in the past, but with this song we gather an impression that she has come to terms with this part of her identity, asserting “emotions are part of our design.”

‘There’s a lot to love with MARINA’s new album, but as is always the case with her music, it’s an acquired taste.’

The final three tracks, I loved you but I love me more, Flowers and Goodbye all explore heartbreak. Though the first of these lacks lyrical depth, the bitterness of the chorus sounding more like a childish jeer, Flowers is a beautiful song written to a former lover that captures the realities of hindsight after a break-up. Goodbye ends the album on a more positive note with an orchestral synth arrangement, and uplifting string trills and staccato piano dominating the pre-chorus. There’s a lot to love with MARINA’s new album, but as is always the case with her music, it’s an acquired taste. Whether you love it or hate it, this album is certainly Diamandis’ most ambitious yet, and this new era of self-expression, self-love and self-acceptance is one to be celebrated.

Written by: Lilith Hudson

Edited by: Olivia Stock

Featured image courtesy of MARINA via Facebook.