For singer-songwriter Marina Diamandis, it seems as if her identity has forever been inextricably linked with her music. When she arrived on the scene with her 2010 debut The Family Jewels she was known then as Marina and the Diamonds, a moniker which suggested the idea of a band — perhaps one similar to the glam-pop and -rock acts of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — despite being, in fact, a solo act. (The Diamonds, she would later explain, referred not to her backing band but, rather, her fans.)
This playful duality even seemed to be embodied in Diamandis herself: half-Greek, half-Welsh; elegantly beautiful, yet often dressed in outfits emblazoned with various pop-art iconography. It’s a look crafted to reflect The Family Jewels’ themes of commercialism and society’s toxic obsession with fame (the album cover itself serves as an ode to Andy Warhol’s own covers for Interview magazine). When she wrote her song, ‘Mowgli’s Road’, wherein she sang, “There’s a fork in the road/ I do as I’m told/ ‘Til I don’t know, don’t know, don’t know/ Who, who I wanna be”, the artist who would later be known as MARINA could not have possibly fathomed just how many iterations of selves she would eventually take on in the course of her career.
Dualisms continue to abound in Diamandis’ latest effort — most obviously in the title itself: LOVE + FEAR. Split into two parts, the double-album (each part capping at 8 songs) is the singer’s most ambitious project since perhaps her 2012 concept album, Electra Heart (for which she literally took on the role of her eponymous alter-ego: a theatrical, platinum-coiffed figure whose guise and impending downfall was inspired by similarly tragic figures such as Marilyn Monroe and Marie Antoinette). The conceit for LOVE + FEAR takes its cues from a quote by the psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross:
“There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions come from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace and joy; from fear comes anger, hate, anxiety, and guilt. It’s true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear.”
Thus, Diamandis built each of the songs around LOVE + FEAR with Kübler-Ross’ quote acting as a writing prompt of sorts. What results is a study of both the personal and the universal, in a way we hadn’t yet heard in Diamandis’ music — a direction many of her Diamonds had been anticipating since 2015’s FROOT. True to its name, FROOT had been universally acclaimed by fans, Stans*, and critics alike as Diamandis’ most cohesive and substantial body of work at the time of its release.
In an article for NYLON magazine that year, Phoebe Reilly had written: “In many ways, Froot feels like the natural follow-up to Family Jewels, except that her debut captured the yearning of a woman fresh out of her teens.” Indeed, combining her signature mix of New Wave-inflected synth-pop and metaphor-laden wordplay, Diamandis certainly looked to be hitting a maturation point as a songwriter. Songs such as ‘I’m a Ruin’ and ‘Weeds’, for example, spoke of heartbreak for Diamandis — as opposed to being the heartbreaker herself. In that same article, Diamandis had said of FROOT: “This is a lifetime record for me. I don’t think I’ll do anything of this ilk again.”
That said, LOVE + FEAR is her attempt at doing so.
Structurally, each side of LOVE + FEAR certainly achieves a sense of sonic chronology, reinforcing the feeling of the two titular emotions actually being at opposite ends of a spectrum, instead of two disparate entities, as Kübler-Ross’ quote suggests. It is here that duplicitous dualisms once again find us, and where the album’s ultimate strength lies. For example, songs such as ‘You’ and ‘Superstar’ (which each feature on FEAR and LOVE, respectfully) are deceptively written, as if each could actually belong on the other’s half of the album. ‘Superstar’ is about putting love up on a pedestal, to an almost idol-worship extent; whilst ‘You’, perhaps the most romantic song on FEAR, speaks of the destructive way the other can manipulate that love. The former is lyrically sparse, considerably downbeat and ambient; meanwhile, the latter’s lyrics are contrasted nicely against an upbeat production.
Other similar parallels between her past and current bodies of work abound: ‘Handmade Heaven’ and ‘Enjoy Your Life’, both evoke FROOT’s ethereal nostalgia; whereas other tracks like ‘Life is Strange’ and ‘Karma’ contain unusual production choices similar to The Family Jewels (Strings! Layered harmonic vocals! The “Oh my gawd!” of it all!). In ‘Human’ and ‘Emotional Machine’, Diamandis continues in her tradition in examining the different sides of human nature, a tradition which started in ‘Savages’ and ‘I’m Not A Robot’. The parallels in both ‘Savages’ and ‘Human’ are perhaps the most apparent: while she states in the former, “I’m not afraid of God/ I’m afraid of man”; she goes on to say, “And if there is a God,/ they’ll know why it’s so hard/to be human” in the latter.
Despite all these familiar echoes, much of LOVE + FEAR’s sound has seen Diamandis shedding her signature sound and pushing towards more Top-40-friendly pop, as heard in the summery ‘Orange Trees’ (inspired by childhood summers spent on the Greek island Lefkáda), and in the guitar-driven Latin sounds of ‘Baby’. While hints of this new direction have been evident in recent collaborations with the group Clean Bandit in the years during her hiatus, it’s still a surprising turn for an artist who had previously spoken about her negative experience recording Electra Heart with high-powered American producers whose job it was to “find the new sound.”
Whether this will have the same alienating effect on her fans in the way Electra Heart had is hard to tell. For now, it’s clear that LOVE + FEAR, in all its aspects (even its album covers convey the singer without makeup, against a simple grey backdrop) sees Diamandis emerging anew as an artist without all the extra frills. It’s the idea of laying oneself bare in order to finally find love in another — and in oneself. After all, as she sings in ‘Soft to be Strong’: “There’s no shame in being sincere.”
Images courtesy of Atlantic Records UK.