Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, the new album from Marina, opens with its title cut. An electrified drum beat and burbling synths are soon joined by Marina’s rich, low-tone vocals declaring “Our ancestors had to fight to survive/ Just so we could have a chance of a life/ We’re not here so we can blow it all/ We could bear witness to the rise and the fall.” There’s an earthiness to the track that turns the pop clock back a couple decades, before the enveloping dominance of the hit-by-algorithm culture. The song proceeds with steady confidence, its performer dead set on saying what she wants to say.
It’s been a little more than a decade since Marina Diamandis released her first album, under the name Marina and the Diamonds. Her fundamental sound has remained more of less intact across that span. She makes dance-pop with clean production and an attention-grabbing directness, sort of like Robyn without the undercurrent of stealth brilliance. Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land is more continuation than evolution, which is both entirely fine — understandable even — and a touch disappointing. If there’s any shift, it’s that Marina, thought never a particularly cryptic lyricist, is yet more direct. “I Love You But I Love Me More” is a easygoing disco saga of barbed empowerment, and “Venus Fly Trap” is a workout of fierce feminist assertion (“Don’t underestimate me/ ‘Cause one day you’re gonna see/ You’re in a losing battle/ Babe, you’ll never stop me being me”).
The thumping rhythm, headlong energy, and words delivered like a disaffected litany make “Purge the Poison” sometimes comes across weirdly like a millennial “We Didn’t Start to Fire” that includes the abstracts with the topic headings: “2007 when size zero was the rage/ Britney shaved her head and/ All we did was call her crazed/ Harvey Weinstein, gone to jail/ Me Too went on to unveil/ Truth and all its glory/ The ending of a story”). It probably shouldn’t work, but it does, mostly because the expression is pure and honest. She’s reacting to what she sees and learns, wrangling in real time with the conflicted emotions she feels when considering the toxicity of chauvinism. If the material never quite finds a next level that could make the album bolder, it still has a satisfyingly plucky attitude.
Marina has been at this a while, and it still seems like she’s in the beginning stages of her artistic conversation. Yes, she’s saying what she wants. There’s room to say so much more. Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land suggests she’ll fill up that extra space soon enough.