Marina Diamandis would enjoy her career so much more if she could just stop thinking about it.
She’s got the voice to make it happen, but her biggest weakness is that for as image obsessed as she is, she can’t help but let her seams show. I liked Electra Heart (a minority opinion) as a fun-if-overthought pop record, but I see where the chronic self-consciousness and occasionally rote songwriting caused it to slump. Diamandis is an artist driven by broad concepts, but lacks the finesse for execution; Electra Heart was an exploration of female identities in the corrupted, materialistic American pop landscape on paper, but in practice it meant getting songs like “Primadonna” about a primadonna, and “Homewrecker” about, well, what do you think? She can present concepts, but not develop them.
Of course, context didn’t help Electra Heart. Diamandis submitted her entry for “meta pop star” at the exact time the winking confections of Katy Perry, the self-aware sleaze of Ke$ha, and the pop art plasticity of Lady Gaga hit their sell-by. And then there was Lana Del Rey. Del Rey was a pitch perfect, show-don’t-tell version of the Electra Heart character Diamandis insisted she was (tellingly, a Venn diagram of the two’s fanbases is almost just a circle). Del Rey made “American trophy wife on white wine and Valium” look like it was why she was put on this Earth. You could always see Diamandis adjusting her pink bow.
All of this matters because FROOT is a conscious reaction to Electra Heart. After an album full of artificial personalities and big name collaborations, FROOT is an unadorned record made with a lone coproducer and Diamandis having sole writing/composing credit. It’s an introspective, “sometimes I need to be alone” album that doesn’t have an obviously trendy single, but instead wants to be a validated, artistic statement.
Just listen to opener “Happy”. As Diamanis sings “I found what I’d been looking for in myself/Found a life worth living for someone else…Never thought that I could be, I could be happy” backed by concert hall piano chords and gentle drumming, you can practically imagine her standing still in a spotlight while removing Electra Heart’s make-up and blonde wig. There are a few more themes at play here, too. FROOT‘s inspired by a break-up (where Diamandis was the breaker-upper), which gets its share of focus, but it’s not the heart of the matter, like Vulnicura or Sea Change. Instead, this album focuses on the self-affirmation, loneliness, and recovery that come afterwards; it’s about a break-up, but I’d hesitate to call it a break-up album.
You wouldn’t, for instance, have something like the title track on a break-up album. “Froot” is probably the best distillation of the album’s sound; a sleek blend of electropop filtered through a live band setting, where programmed loops and 8-bit effects with spacey synths bounce around a glammed out disco chorus with a killer guitar riff. Combined with some of Marina’s most restrained but sensual vocals, the resulting track makes something new by blending sounds she’s worked with for years (it was also the first song released for the album, back in November, and still sounds fresh five months later).
While nothing is quite as expansive or intricate as “Froot”, the record is frontloaded with poppier cuts. Single “I’m a Ruin” balances it’s pretty, reverb-drenched atmosphere with nimble guitar work and a great vocal take, then the album peaks early with the one-two punch of “Blue” and “Forget”. “Blue” finds most of its strength in a lilting synth hook, massive New Wave chorus, and surprisingly danceable rhythm section, all of which drive the cautiously optimistic lyric “I don’t want to be blue anymore” home. “Forget” picks up “Blue”‘s momentum, cuts through the reverb, and delivers the album’s biggest pop song. You listen to these, and get an idea of what a less radio-chasing version of Electra Heart might have sounded like.
Unfortunately, FROOT‘s sleekness sound hurts it later on. “Better Than That”‘s whirring synth, incessant bass, and yelping guitar are all overproduced, resulting in a messy track that sounds suffocating, even as Diamandis has some lyrical barbs. “Weeds” is a better composition, but its effectiveness as a pop ballad is limited by the production; the song wants to be an organic, sweeping ballad, but the mix is too cloying to let anything register. Likewise, “Savages”, with its lively piano and cultural critique, sounds like a deliberate call back to Diamandis’ first album The Family Jewels, but FROOT‘s too buttoned up for that sort of hysteric goofiness to work here. It’s not that these are bad songs, it’s just that they don’t play to the album’s strengths. Minimal electro-ballad “Solitaire” does, and is a standout for it.
Weak songwriting and clunky execution show up on FROOT, too. “Better Than That” gets into confused and overly complicated gender politics (she admonishes a woman up and down for using sex to get ahead, then has a lyric saying this isn’t slutshaming because she’s not judging the sex, but that this woman betrayed her. Disagree, agree, take your pick, but this is too much thought for a not-good song), and when she tries to do cheeky girl-power pop complete with a cry of “girl in the 21st century” on “Can’t Pin Me Down”, the end result is somewhere I swear Lilly Allen or Kate Nash did years ago. Likewise, it’s hard to appreciate “Gold” when I think No Doubt was doing this same vaguely reggae, summer pop trick.
FROOT is bookended by ballads. Closer “Immortal” feels every bit as stately and honest (and “Honest”) as opener “Happy”. Again, the break-up gets plenty of references, but you wouldn’t have to stretch to imagine her singing “I want to be immortal” and “I wanna live forever/Forever in your heart/And we’ll always be together” to her fans. “Immortal” is mostly held together by string inspired synths and a steady bassline, less peaceful than the piano of “Happy”, but more determined to move on. And even though FROOT isn’t a masterpiece, it takes steps in the right direction for an artist still finding her footing. Three and a half out of five stars.
tl;dr: FROOT is a solid pop album despite a few bad apples.