The Chronicles of Marnia is puzzling and complicated, and it delves into those gray areas with further refined song structures and great lyrics -- and without batting an eye.
Marnie Stern made a quick impression as one of the few artists to get a deal based on an unsolicited demo. Since then, though, it turns out it's taken a while to get to know who Marnie Stern is. Or, rather, it's taken her a while to tell us. Her music seems, at first, universal in its shredding, chaotic appeal. In reality, however, it's deeply personal, and a longview story of her finding herself, as person or artist -- sometimes the line between the two is hard to tell here.
So after the madness of In Advance of a Broken Arm and the universal acceptance of This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, we got 2010's Marnie Stern, a declaration as much as an eponymous album, a record of personal stories that -- along with last year's release of that unsolicited demo -- seemed to complete the genesis story. Where she'd go from there is anyone's guess.
As it turns out, the playfully titled The Chronicles of Marnia isn't as winking and goofball as its name implies. Instead, it's an album about what happens after you've decided who you are, after you've called yourself by name. This is the huge space of time, the new set of troubles and questions that come after self-definition. We go through the wardrobe and into a sort of fantasy space with Marnie Stern, not one of talking animals and religious overtones but rather one full of more quotidian mysteries without solutions.
That's not to say that Stern is downtrodden and fraught with worry here. Far from it. Instead, she seems braced by the search. Opener "Year of the Glad", with its repetition of "the beginning" and propulsive chug of chords and repeated backing "eeks", is all about scratching the surface. She sifts through "new thoughts and old dreams" equally, and though it comes at a shuffling lull, you buy it when she decrees "everything's starting now" -- especially since it leads to "You Don't Turn Down", a song firmly looking into her life as performer. We get her feeling expectation from her fanbase, but also reliving the chaotic speed of life on the road with quick-fire, shout-sung verses. It's a moment of energy but also concern. As she claims to be "losing hope in her body" we are all of a sudden hit with two roads to travel: the more existential questions of where to go presented by "Year of the Glad" and the corporeal reality of how our body, both in moments of crisis and aging, can slow down.
But Stern seems mostly to pose these questions and worries only to remind us of hurdles rather than obsessing over them. She's always quick to mention struggle ("Nothing is Easy") but also a way out. In "Nothing is Easy" she assures us we "don't need a sledgehammer to walk in [her] shoes", even as she follows it with the title track. On "Noonan" she wonders "Don't you want to be somebody? Don't you don't want to be?" as much to herself as to us, leaving the slight difference between the two -- between definition and comfort in one's skin -- implied rather than said out loud. Even as she snaps off the line "everyone is changing" on late-album standout "East Side Glory", the song itself smoothes out any concern, taking it all in stride.
And so The Chronicles of Marnia strikes confidently out into the unknown. Musically, it continues to refine and sharpen Sterns guitar heroics by meshing them more clearly with her pop sensibilities. It helps that her band is as striking and unpredictable as ever, but it's the layering of different guitar parts that carries the day. Tired perhaps of blowing our hair back with finger-tapping speed, Stern seems more interested in carefully placed chord phrasings and riff interplay to provide intricacy. Cutting chords play a back and forth with those finger-taps on the title track, but it's the way the tumble-down hook behind her verse builds to the ringing arena-sized windmill chords of the chorus that makes the song brilliant. "Proof of Life" is driven more by the clean percussive piano that runs lock-step with the rhythm section than the angular guitar work that lays over it. "You Don't Turn Down" -- a fight between one fuzzed-out chunky guitar, one sliding murky hook, and metal-esque shredding -- may be the best example of this layering. In all cases, it pulls back on the edge of previous records, makes room for Stern's increasingly fascinating vocal textures, and creates songs that surprise not by sheer force but an intricate knitting of surprising parts.
The songcraft is so much more accomplished here, in fact, and supports the progression in maturity the lyrics hint at, that the constant return to that finger-tapping technique is both comforting and exhausting. It feels a bit like a back-to-the-well move Stern is outgrowing, or has outgrown, so while it still scratches the guitar theatrics itch, the songs around those finger taps more often than not feel like they've outgrown that kind of easy attention. And songs on such a great record don't need the easy way out. The Chronicles of Marnia is puzzling and complicated, and delves into those gray areas without batting an eye. It's easy to be confident when you think you've got the answers. Marnie Stern, though, pulls off something much trickier. She's clear-eyed and charging forward, even if she's just begun to ask the right questions.