Smooth contemporary synthpop both strange and weird…
The release of the Crystal World album in 2013 demonstrated that Helen Marnie continued to display a talent for good electronic music, even while Ladytron were on an extended hiatus. As an album, it breathed a lush atmosphere that combined the electropop stylings that Marnie had crafted so well previously, but with a much more personal and emotional depth.
The gap between that album and new outing Strange Words And Weird Wars was broken only by the release of the buzzy pop of ‘Wolves’ in 2014. Instead, Marnie has spent time honing the material (written over a period of 2 years) before unleashing it on the world.
Initial previews of the album were encouraging, with the pulsing beats of ‘Alphabet Block’ showing that Marnie was switching gear for a much more pop-orientated direction than its 2013 forebear. Marnie herself described the track as “shoe-gaze electropop” and there’s certainly an immersive element to the composition. Marnie’s vocals take on a whispery sheen over a bed of layered synths and emphatic percussion and, as intro tracks go, it delivers the goods.
Marnie worked alongside Jonny Scott on the new album, who provided co-writing duties and adopted the role of producer. Scott arrived through Iain Cook (Chvrches) and being based in Glasgow (where Marnie has now relocated to from London) made a big difference to how Scott and Marine could collaborate.
Drawing comparisons with the likes of Ladyhawke and Goldfrapp, Strange Words And Weird Wars has opted for a much more electronic palette on this release, which also throws a nod or two to synthwave. Take the pop perfection on ‘Bloom’ which invites the listener to throw shapes on the dancefloor. “I’m in trouble again/in a no man’s land we’ll bloom” suggests Marnie on a track that boasts strong vocal melodies.
Meanwhile, ‘G.I.R.L.S.’ with its cheerleading chants offers up one of the strongest tracks on the album. It’s Pop with a capital ‘P’. Equally, ‘Electric Youth’ invites the listener to reflect on nights of teenage abandon on a track that has a bright, airy quality to it.
Things take a more sober mood on ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’ – a much more slow-paced affair whose lyrics hint at danger. Clocking in as the album’s longest track, it’s also perhaps the only song that’s at odds with the more pop direction that the album’s aiming for.
There’s something of a more muscular crunchiness to ‘Lost Maps’, whose breezy pop is interleaved with layers of electronic effects beneath a confident vocal. For all that, the song has darker themes inspired by the refugee crisis (“survival’s not a crime”) and the idea of uncertain futures.
There’s a more languid quality to ‘Summer Boys’ whose nostalgia-seeped lyrics (“endless day of waterfalls/and drowning in their eyes”) are given a lift by the punchy power-pop percussion underpinning the track. Meanwhile, de-tuned synths lurk in the mix giving the composition a particular warmth.
Elsewhere, ‘Little Knives’ combines machine-like elements with warm pop, giving the whole affair polarising contrasts.
The album ends on a high note with the rhythmic wonder that’s ‘Heartbreak Kid’, its bass-heavy arpeggios setting the scene for the emotional punch in the vocal delivery (the lyrics of which served as inspiration for the album’s title). But it’s the melodic flourishes and arrangement that gives this track the polished pop that’s been such a central theme to the album as a whole.
Comparisons to Ladytron are somewhat inevitable, particularly as Helen Marnie’s unique vocal and style of electronic arrangements are such a vital component to the Liverpool synthpop group. But Strange Words manages to move beyond the overall style of that outfit and also builds on the foundations that Crystal World established. It’s a different album for sure, perhaps missing some of that baroque electropop that Marnie’s 2013 debut excelled at, but this is a minor quibble.
The end result is a solid album of contemporary electropop that listeners will find intelligent, engaging and yet also fun. Strange Words And Weird Wars is a continuing demonstration on why Marnie is one of electronic music’s most precious assets.
Strange Words And Weird Wars is out now on Disco Pinata.
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.
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