Quirky singer-songwriter's debut is an acquired taste.
Marina has very ambitious goals for herself, which I can’t imagine the majority of her audience really sharing on her behalf. A less subtle Tori Amos, Marina (and her nonexistent diamonds—Florence has her machine, after all) seems to believe that she is heads and shoulders above any “singer-songwriter” tag that could be applied to her. And as a result, her overblown debut is definitely an acquired taste. It’s the typical combination of piano, guitar, strings, bass, drums, and voice most of the time, but the sheer dictatorship in her voice totally takes you out of any Nerina Pallot/Adele comfort zone you might have thought you were entering.
In fairness, Marina isn’t just a singer-songwriter. She’s a preacher-emoter-mocker-moaner-songwriter. Her melodramatic vocals dominate, resulting in thoroughly attention-seeking music. The opening “Are You Satisfied?” is all cheeky violins and forceful, trembling vocals, showcasing her drive and determination from the start. “I Am Not A Robot” demands attention from an unattentive lover, while “Hollywood” mocks showbiz, simultaneously namedropping. This is the sound of a woman who is adamant that she’s not going anywhere until she’s reached the top. One almost thinks of Lady Gaga when lyrics like “TV taught me how to feel, now real life has no appeal” spill from Marina’s loose lips. She also seems determined to confess and open herself up for all to see, claiming, “if I fail, I’ll fall apart”.
Her music doesn’t quite live up to the hype that she builds up about herself. Great songs are sometimes let down by predictable arrangements. The opening trio of tracks, particularly the stomping disco of “Shampain”, and the singles “Mowgli’s Road” and “Hollywood”, showcase Marina’s spectacular songwriting ability. However, when she doesn’t live up to these heights, one feels overwhelmed by her presence, such as during the musical cartoon “Hermit the Frog”, which grates with each tongue-in-cheek ad lib. It seems that Marina occasionally cannot help but cross the line between tongue-in-cheek and finger-down-throat.
However, she does get away with it, and quite often surprisingly enough. As she screams, “I’m a fucking wildcard!”, the new wave synths and enthusiastic beats of the slightly La Roux-esque “The Outsider” begin to make you feel as excited about her as she is, and “Oh No!” balances its sheer melodrama with a goliath of a dance rock backing track. “Numb” echoes Annie Lennox at her most quirky and pulls it off admirably, despite disarmingly stating, “I’m no good to anyone, because all I care about it is number one”. Elsewhere the overconfidence she exudes can be slightly offputting when the music is happy to take a backseat.
The Family Jewels is a positively bipolar album, full of self-confident highs and blatant cockiness followed by self-effacing lows, but Marina seems to celebrate each extreme with the same affected deadpan. An intriguing listen no doubt, and no one sounds quite like Marina at the moment, but there is nevertheless only so much you can take in one go. Although there is definitely musical colour here, Marina’s vocal delivery and attitude has a tendency to overshadow the music, which is often melodically inventive, but we are rarely given the chance to realise this. Once is a novelty, but if we are to understand how much Marina has to offer musically, she has got to tone it down. Another in-your-face record will be one too many.