Sunday, August 16, 2015

album review: 'cry baby' by melanie martinez

I've been getting requests to cover this artist since 2014.

And if I'm judging at all by the cavalcade of requests begging for me to cover Melanie Martinez, the hype has reached critical mass and it'd be questionable if I didn't cover her... even though she's never had a charting single off of any material that wasn't from The Voice. Yeah, for those of you who don't know, Melanie Martinez was once on that overexposed show and got eliminated midway through, and yet to judge by her buzz and following nowadays she's easily eclipsed many of the winners, thanks mostly to viral success off of her EP last year and her videos. And after a few listens, I got the impression she was the sort of artist I wanted to like more than I did, with the striking lyrics, shattered porcelain persona, brittle instrumentation, and creepy videos. 

But the more I listened to Melanie Martinez, the more I was convinced that the image was eclipsing the actual music, which really wasn't as interesting as the ideas behind it. I didn't think she was a bad singer - somewhere between Lana Del Rey at her most tolerable and Natalia Kills - but she wasn't great, and a lot of her instrumentation and production didn't impress me. I could go a step further and say that most of her image and style both Marina & The Diamonds and Kimbra did with better actual music, and if I were to admit I listen to j-pop or k-pop I'd say that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is considerably weirder - and better - but the larger issue is that the whole faux-lolita to emphasize girlish creepiness just doesn't appeal to me whatsoever. And yeah, I definitely know I'm not the audience for any of this, but at the same time I wasn't buying into the hype machine.

That said, when you get down to the songwriting, outside of some minor technical issues I'll admit Martinez has ambition and big ideas, and she's got enough personality to make up for a lot. I was significantly more skeptical when I heard it was a concept album - which is certainly bold for a pop record, and even moreso for a debut album - but I figured this would at least be interesting, even if it was a trainwreck. So what did we get with Cry Baby?

So here's the thing: I want to reward this album for its ambition and dogged commitment to its themes and decidedly unique style, even if the latter is definitely not my thing. But the more I listened through the narrative of this record, the more the gaping holes opened and wouldn't shut... and yet I wouldn't say this is bad, per se. Instead, Cry Baby feels like a debut in that it's overloaded with ideas, but hasn't quite mastered the execution with anything close to subtlety.

So let's talk about those concepts and themes, shall we? The 'narrative' of this album - if you dig up the child's storybook that Martinez includes to sketch out the tale - is of a little girl dealing with a hellish family situation, a series of bad relationships, and even a sexual assault. Okay, a lot going on there, but Martinez goes a step further by positioning this little girl as her alter ego, using the girlish imagery to emphasize the creepiness and intensify how adult these situations really are. It's a genuinely neat trick, playing both on societal sexualization of increasingly younger girls and infantilization of older women, and it additionally gives Martinez the benefit of added vulnerability playing the character of a little girl who gets caught in situations beyond her control. And as such, the melodrama of some of the writing can be excused, because it's coming from an intentionally childish point-of-view - it makes sense why it might be over the top. And to further give Martinez credit, she's an imaginative songwriter in appropriating the bright pastel shades associated with children and then infusing it with a Lana Del Rey-esque veneer of shattered elegance. And at this album's best, it can tap into that tendency of humanity to regress to younger mannerisms when things go spectacularly wrong, like on the album standout 'Pity Party' - it's a coping mechanism, strikingly reminiscent of the most recent episode of Comedy Central's Another Period, which you should be watching, by the way, it's excellent.

So in broad strokes, I really like the ideas behind this album... but the execution of it really is hit and miss at best, starting with the instrumentation. The production does have elements of modern pop for better or worse - percussion heavy over melody, trap-inspired hi-hats and bass-heavy beats, a generally eerie and reverb-heavy atmosphere - but this album does salvage some personality with the heavy usage of the xylophones, pianos, sampled music boxes, and even hints of horns and strings to drive the melodies. And hell, the only large production hang-up I have with the instrumentation is that sometimes they feel lacking in foundation, like on 'Milk And Cookies' or 'Dollhouse'. The larger problem is that aside from lacking strong driving melodies, a lot of this album falls into a similar, overwrought pattern, mostly because Martinez is not subtle. And in a sense that's fine - I liked the thin beat on 'Training Wheels' that reminded me of a clicking bike, the click of gears behind 'Dollhouse', and even the bubbles backing the surprisingly smooth beat on 'Soap', which features some great percussion escalation over the chorus. And then there's 'Pity Party', which features the Lesley Gore sample from 'It's My Party' - and I'll say it, considering how much I can't stand the original 'It's My Party', I actually really like Martinez's reinterpretation.

But then we get to vocals and vocal production... and I'm sorry, but I can't stand Martinez's baby-voiced coo over the course of the majority of this album. I don't get a lot of potent emotion from it beyond blank-eyed creepiness which only goes so far, especially when it feels like an affectation, of which it really comes across. And that's before we get to the half-crying delivery Martinez does that is overwrought in the worst way possible, and coupled with the babyish background vocals... look, I get going for atmosphere, but this is forcing it and not in a good way, almost as if she was convinced we weren't going to get it so she had to exaggerate it. And that's not even getting to the pitch-shifting whenever she's trying to talk to speak as a guy like on 'Tag, You're It' or when she uses it to flesh out the background like on 'Sippy Cup' or 'Training Wheels' - again, you're forcing it, and it comes across as really gaudy and overdone. The infuriating thing is that you get snippets of a more soulful, adult delivery across this album, particularly in the midsection, that honestly makes you wish that Martinez wasn't so enamoured with the hyper-stylized lolita aesthetic and tried to present herself as, say, wiser beyond her years.

And that's the thing: once you strip away the garish colours, most of the content song-by-song isn't that original. 'Dollhouse' and 'Sippy Cup' were cute, until you realize that Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves have done this better. 'Alphabet Boy' tackles mansplaining with some admittedly clever writing, but Sara Bareilles did much of the same thing with 'King Of Anything' and it didn't feel nearly as forced. Hell, the anti-plastic surgery song 'Mrs. Potato Head' - and yes Martinez, you are slamming women who get plastic surgery with that comparison and on 'Sippy Cup' especially cutting into societal pressures and insecurities behind their motivations, don't try to say you're not - it's not a bad song, but Pink already did this with 'Stupid Girls' and it didn't feel nearly as overwrought. And that's before you look at the larger picture and narrative of the album - this is a girl who goes through a rough childhood, bad breakups, and sexual aggression... and then she snaps, 'embraces her crazy' by poisoning her attacker, and on the worst song of this album by a mile, tries to steal some girl's boyfriend on 'Pacify Her'. What sense does that progression make, that's messed up - and it's also indicative of the biggest underlying problem with this album, and it ties into the themes of vulnerability. Much of this album focuses on how Martinez opens up to the world and how that should be a good thing, mostly for the world to then exploit and take advantage of her. She's looking for our sympathy - it's the biggest reason why she uses the baby voice to exaggerate it - for us to identify with her or feel sorry for her - and yet then you have songs like 'Pacify Her' where Martinez is now saying that we aren't supposed to identify with what she's doing, even though its at the foundation of your gimmick? Or is the point she's trying to make that if you're vulnerable, society will crush it down until you snap and because just as bad... but then what gives her the moral authority on the back half of this album to lecture about plastic surgery, or on the final song where she uses the incredibly tired Alice In Wonderland motif to illustrate craziness, with the point being it's all okay? Being vulnerable and being 'crazy' are two different things, especially in the latter case where identifying 'crazy' as empowering is all sorts of questionable, especially for women and especially given the context of this album, where Martinez plainly has a message she wants to be taken seriously.

Look, I respect Martinez's ambition and tenacity in making a record like this, especially for a debut - it's got a unique style and personality, and if you're more into it than I am, you'll probably find this a fascinating listen. But putting aside my gripes with the sound, I don't think she did this all that well, mostly because it feels melodramatic and not in a good way, the production feeling gaudy, overdone, and yet strangely not all that memorable, and the tone and style feels very forced. Coupled with the general immaturity not being my thing at all, I'm thinking a 5/10 from me and I find this hard to recommend. If you like the style or the image, you might like this, but this is decidedly not for me, in more ways than one.

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