Album review: Marina And The Diamonds – ‘The Family Jewels’ (679)

Ms Diamandis mixes sparkling pop with beautiful darkness for a debut that dazzles

NME’s first encounter with Marina Diamandis took place just over a year ago on a grim winter’s evening in a Soho coffee shop. On the cusp of releasing her debut single with independent NY-Lon label Neon Gold – a corking AA side of ‘Mowgli’s Road’/‘Obsessions’ – Marina sparkled through the bleak midwinter like the most popular girl at school but, endearingly, also the most goofy.

Cackling almost constantly, she breathlessly told us how she was going to rope in a choreographer for her high-camp live shows, during which she’d be wearing a fittingly extravagant selection of poufy ballgowns and regal Elizabethan neck ruffs. Then there was the idea for her fantasy band merch – tailormade corsets covered in Swarovski crystals, of course – and most nuttily thrilling of all, plans to play at the American MTV Awards in three years’ time. Now, when most artists who are so green they’re practically spitting salad and shitting grass suggest something as patently ludicrous as parading on a global stage without having even released their first single, the only acceptable reaction is to stifle your laughter before ordering them to sweep up their shattered dreams and kicking them in the direction of the nearest Job Centre. But Marina didn’t deserve such treatment. Behind her laughter was steely determination and a glint in the eyes which made you believe it might just happen. There was a near-fully formed pop star right in front of our face and no-one else in the room knew it except for us.

Now, 13 months or so down the line, Marina’s talent isn’t so secret. Bumped into runner-up position on two counts by [a]Ellie Goulding[/a] – in the BBC Sound Of 2010 poll as well as the Brits’ Critics’ Choice Award – Marina has at least beaten Goulding when it comes to release dates, letting her debut full-length album loose a cheeky week before the ‘Starry Eyed’ chanteuse.

An album with a distinct dual personality, Marina’s dazzling ‘The Family Jewels’ pitches the confident, MTV Awards-headlining superstar of our dreams against a more self-deprecating girl-next-door Marina who’s dead set on Supertramping and vamping her way out of her fug.

Asking ‘Are You Satisfied?’, the album opens with a flurry of vocal acrobatics, as Marina works her way dramatically across a genius, soaring pop opera that gives Cyndi Lauper’s ritzy histrionics a run for their money. Riding the same new wave of hen-night pop as [a]Music Go Music[/a], lyrically it serves as the first dip into Marina’s shadowy psyche, with incongruous lines like “It’s my problem if I have no friends and feel I want to die”.

Dark, questioning themes seem to be Marina’s speciality, and when delivered in her distinctive tremulous tones, they carry a weight that other chart-friendly acts would find hard to bear. “I’m a troubled one and I won’t be forgiven/Guilty on the run and I know what I have done”, she quivers on the heroically charged ‘Guilty’. It comes straight after the equally bombastic and introspective ‘Numb’, on which a choir of moody Marinas sing about sacrifice over swooning strings and trembling piano, shining with the vibrancy and technical triumph of a ‘Running Up That Hill’-era Kate Bush. A pleasant surprise for anyone who was expecting just another laboriously ‘kooky’ pop maiden.

Just as luxuriantly troubled is the glorious ‘Obsessions’, which sees a harried Marina breaking down in
the supermarket while choosing “what packet of crackers to pick”. More downplayed but no less effecting, it’s
a towering, clever beast that grabs you by the heart and mind at the same time and then takes you outside and offers you a cheeky bit of keyboard ska for good measure.

‘The Outsider’ offers more self critical gloom over Lycra-tight beats which could have been nabbed from [a]Lady Gaga[/a], but are laced with a darkness that makes them unmistakably British. “Feeling like a loser/Feeling like a bum/Sitting on the outside observing the fun”, she coos on the track for which she made producer Liam Howe give her a rumoured 486 vocal takes.

Of course, there’s high-energy, somewhat friendlier fodder here too, with single ‘Hollywood’ twiddled to perfection by 5ive/Kylie/Spice Girls supremo Biff Stannard. Raining down on the ears like an explosion of sonic confetti, it boasts a chorus so killer it should probably be investigated by the police. Announcing its arrival with a geeky, unselfconscious guffaw, the stereotype-smashing fempop of ‘Girls’ provides further cap-doffing at the stilettos of Gaga, plugging into Ms Germanotta’s nonsense lyrics with gobby “blah blah”s and “nah nah”s. ‘Shampain’ – which shares the prize for the album’s worst song name along with ‘Hermit The Frog’ – transcends its duff title and looks straight to Abba, while the tribal stomp of ‘Mowgli’s Road’ and ‘I Am Not A Robot’’s dreamy Bladerunner bop prove how important variety is in Marina’s musical pick’n’mix.

‘The Family Jewels’ was originally conceived as a 12-track album, and ‘Oh No!’ was mastered and added so late in the game it has to be emailed over to NME as it’s not included on the original promo CD. With Phil Collins drums and yelping Lene Lovich vox proclaiming “I’m gonna live, I’m gonna fly/I’m gonna fail, I’m gonna die”, it’s the perfect summation of a singer simultaneously wracked with doubt and unfailingly secure in what she’s produced. Frankly, with a debut this astonishing, we think the time for Marina to stop worrying
is here.

Leonie Cooper

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Click here to get your copy of Marina And The Diamonds’ ‘The Family Jewels’ from the Rough Trade shop.