Back in 2009 I recommended Marina and the Diamonds (a.k.a. Marina Diamandis – the “Diamonds” are her fans, not a band). Since then she’s released not just her first album (The Family Jewels), but a second one too – Electra Heart.
I have to confess I was a bit disappointed with Electra Heart when it came out last year. It has a more conventional contemporary pop style and production than her distinctive earlier work, sounding quite reminiscent of Katy Perry, or a Ke$ha without the rap. This was not really what I’d hoped for after I Am Not A Robot and Mowgli’s Road.
Concept albums have only made occasional appearances since the 1970s. The most notable recent proponents are the somewhat surprising Green Day, whose rock operas American Idiot (2004) and 21st Century Breakdown (2009) fall into concept album territory. Although I don’t think the term concept album was used, it’s always been clear that Electra Heart was intended to be something similar.
The backstory of Electra Heart is that Marina had an unsuccessful relationship with someone who was, basically, looking out for number one. Despite intending not to write stereotypical songs about love, she found herself reflecting on this relationship and writing indirectly about it. The eponymous Electra Heart is a female character with similar attitudes to the ex, who embodies four archetypes: the Teen Idle, the Primadonna, Su-Barbie-A (the suburban housewife), and the Homewrecker.
As released in 2012, Electra Heart the album in some ways has a difficult sell. Electra Heart the character is not inherently a sympathetic character, although Marina succeeds in establishing a bit of rapport for her. The album starts with a couple of songs that grab you fairly emphatically (the poppy anthem Bubblegum Bitch and stomper Primadonna), but after that the focus is rather lost and the album seems to wander through a selection of competent but ultimately uninspiring tracks. You pays your money, you gets your album, that’s it.
However, there’s another way of looking at Electra Heart. Even before the album was released, on 8th August 2011, Marina started posting promotional videos for the album on YouTube, beginning with PART 1: ♡ "FEAR & LOATHING” ♡, and appearing in character as Electra Heart — usually blonde, with 1950s style fashions and a black heart beauty spot on the left cheek. Two years later to the day, the 11th and last video has just been posted, and it becomes clear that the best way to listen to Electra Heart is not to play the album, but to follow the sequence of videos.
Some tracks that are on the CD do not appear amongst the videos, and some videos feature tracks that are not on the album. For those tracks that are found in both places, the video sequence brings a much-needed structure.
First video only - go to the playlist
Where the order of tracks on the album seemed somewhat haphazard, in the YouTube version Fear and Loathing sets the scene for Electra Heart’s different personas and pre-shadows what’s to come, before we meet the Teen Idle in Radioactive. The Archetypes is a linking track of the sort you generally wouldn’t listen to on its own but it introduces the archetypes by name and emphasises Electra Heart’s alienation. We quickly progress through the Primadonna and Su-Barbie-A as Electra goes through young adulthood and gets married, carrying with her her expectations of how she expects life to turn out. Power and Control depicts a rather cynical battle for control in the relationship, before things start to fall apart as Electra becomes the Homewrecker, starting with How To Be A Heartbreaker.
In E.V.O.L. (released on Valentines Day 2013) a failed relationship leaves Electra hurt and resentful. State of Dreaming is more reflective as she looks back on how she’s been living. Up to this point, although Electra’s had a lot of screen time, she rarely looks straight at the camera. By way of contrast, Lies starts off delivered straight to camera and is a powerful accusation that comes across as very personal. In the finalé, posted on 8th August this year exactly two years after the first part, Electra Heart reviews her life (this is mostly conveyed through a retrospective of the previous videos rather than through the fairly minimal lyrics) before deciding on a fresh start.The final shot shows that the persona of Electra Heart is no more (backed up by a tweet from Marina).
Five tracks out of eleven are not on the album, but two of those are relative minimal atmospheric tracks (The Archetypes and Su-Barbie-A) and one is the conclusion, also fairly light on lyrical content. The remaining two are How To Be A Heartbreaker and E.V.O.L. These do give a more narrative feel to the decline of Electra’s fortunes in the Homewrecker phase, but apart from the fleshing out of this stage of the narrative, the main difference is just in track ordering, and it seems at least possible, if not likely, that the album would therefore have benefited from a bit of restructuring.
In the future, I’m much more likely to listen to the YouTube version as a playlist than the album as it was released. It’s also an option to plug in some of the missing tracks from the album where they appear to fit in with the narrative. I won’t go overboard with trying to cram extras in, but for my own listening I think Bubblegum Bitch fits nicely just after the introductory Fear and Loathing, seeming to express an Electra Heart maybe a couple of years younger than in Radioactive.
Just as a final aside, given that Marina is Welsh of Greek origin, and has hinted at the relevance of mythology, it’s likely that the name Electra isn’t a random choice – sadly though, I’m not picking up on any references there may be to the mythological Electra.
Unfortunately, embedding these videos is problematic, so I've included Fear and Loathing above, and you can watch the rest as a playlist.