In pop music, the best artists are the ones that keep it fun and hold your attention. It’s a worthy tradition that arguably reached its zenith in the 1980s, where Adam Ant, ABC and Madness amongst others did their bit to keep the charts boredom-free. A succession of over-earnest boy bands, talent show alumni and shadowy svengali seem intent on sucking the enjoyment out of pop culture but it looks like Marina Diamandis - better known as Marina and the Diamonds - follows the twin manifesto of pop music: fun and entertaining.
Marina has received a lot of publicity in the UK (she came second in the influential BBC Sound of 2010 poll) and looks set to ride the recent wave of female success, led by fellow solo-artist-and-not-actually-a-band Florence and the Machine. She’s not exactly green around the gills though; after more than one failed attempt at making it in bands and musicals, Diamandis decided to go it alone.
This means that her rise from obscurity to first album proper has involved determination and hard work and my word, doesn’t she want you to know it? The main lyrical themes of The Family Jewels are Marina, Marina and a little more Marina. Although a lyrically solipsistic singer is hardly an anomaly in music, Diamandis is more self-involved than most. She often refers to herself in the third person in song, throws in irritating vocal affectations and can even change from one accent to another in the same track. There are shades of several idiosyncratic chanteuses in the sound Diamandis creates - Kate Bush and Björk being the most obvious reference points - but she primarily comes across as Amanda Palmer’s immature, attention-demanding kid sister.
One theory which could potentially have legs as to why Diamandis is so keen to hog the spotlight is that the accompanying music and arrangements are so pedestrian that she uses her voice to disguise the record‘s shortcomings. If, as we’re told, this is the sound of the future, it’s slightly concerning that it appears to be a sanitised version of La Roux’s brittle, fractured synths. Unfortunately, her constant insistence on being so ham-fistedly quirky and zany soon becomes wearing, and simultaneously rescues and spoils the whole album. Consider Hermit the Frog: a perfectly adequate song until Diamandis decides to start howling like a coyote and blathering on about frogs, and The Outsider is a listenable ballad (albeit one which sounds like it was written with fans of Twilight films in mind) ruined by a throaty growl of “I’m a fucking WILDCARD!”.
A wildcard Diamandis is patently not. As much as she’d like us to believe she’s some kind of individualistic trail-blazer, The Family Jewels is little more than an updated version of Pink’s teenage-angst-filled album, Missundaztood. Peel away the layers of the 80s-inspired backing tracks, get rid of the histrionics and scrutinise the lyrics, and it’s all style over substance. Syncopated piano chords, bouncy bass and sing-song melodies give the impression that it’s on the verge of morphing into the kind of music you’d hear in a big top. Thankfully it never does, but a custard pie-wielding clown and a swanee whistle always loom ominously on the horizon.
Counter-intuitively, it’s when Diamandis really lets go and turns the crazy up to eleven that The Family Jewels is best. Opener Are You Satisfied? has crunching guitars and a genuinely thrilling build-up to the chorus, and Hollywood is an astute and perceptive tale of the fame game. On the latter, Diamandis sings of air-headed stewardesses filling in “gossip magazine crosswords” whilst admitting herself that she’s“obsessed with the mess that’s America”. Upon arrival at JFK she’s met by an ersatz promoter who exclaims “Oh my God! You look just like Shakira! No, no, you’re Catherine Zeta”, before the killer line is deftly tossed out by our heroine: “actually, my name’s Marina”.
Best of all is the fantastic Oh No where Diamandis brattishly exclaims “Don’t want cash, don’t want cards, want it fast, want it hard” and, rather brilliantly and with otherwise hidden self-awareness, “I’m now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophesy” before a towering end to the chorus which could crumble masonry.
It seems these are the exceptions rather than the rules, sadly. Girls strives for eroticism and female empowerment, but the searing insight that, with image-obsessed girls, “all they say is na na na na nah” is not as acerbic as it could be. This failing is symptomatic of The Family Jewels as a whole; although it has its moments, and Diamandis is clearly a talent, it’s nowhere near as clever, cutting and unique as it thinks it is. If it’s fast-paced, witty, modern, in-your-face pop you’re after, try investigating Little Jackie and their vastly underrated 2008 album, The Stoop. On final track, Guilty, Diamandis purrs “I’m a troubled one”and proclaims she’s “guilty on the run”, when in reality, she’s only guilty of is falsely raising expectations with her brash approach and letting herself down. Marina and the Diamonds may well stick to the twin virtues of pop but maybe it’s time to add a third golden rule: don’t be so bloody annoying.