Marina Diamandis came to prominence after coming in a strong second on the BBC Sound of 2010 poll list, on the strength of a number of singles released throughout 2009. Considering the company she kept on the list - incredibly derivative and inane acts like Delphic, Hurts, and the Drums, with Ellie Goulding topping it - it's really not that impressive an accomplishment. Regardless, Diamandis, using the name Marina and the Diamonds, had a strong base for a debut album with her highly catchy and cleverly written singles. And for the most part, The Family Jewels (her full-length debut) does succeed, brandishing a unique brand of electro-pop that immediately stands out against her cookie-cutter contemporaries, but Diamandis simply seems to be trying too hard in places, particularly with her vocal delivery and lyrics, and it weighs the album down significantly.
Firstly, it should be noted that Diamandis is an unexpectedly sharp songwriter. The first three songs start things off splendidly - opener Are You Satisfied? brings broad instrumentation together for a highly danceable sound. Shampain, which just might be the best song on the album, is an absurdly fun track, with great synths, excellent vocal melodies, and a chorus that sounds like ABBA interpreted as new wave. I Am Not a Robot, one of her early singles, is where the comparisons to Kate Bush and Florence and the Machine make the most sense - the track adopts an almost folkish sound, and she sings gingerly over a sparse arrangement of a piano and violin that gradually grows throughout. For the most part, the music remains highly inventive all across The Family Jewels, for example making great use of eastern strings and glockenspiel on Hermit the Frog, incorporating piano into Oh No!'s throbbing dance beat, or the brooding, almost dubstep-sounding closer Guilty. While the melodies aren't quite evenly distributed, the songs with strong hooks are very catchy, with songs like the aforementioned Shampain and Mowgli's Road, which are insanely addictive.
Though the music is as accomplished as it is, much of the album's unevenness comes from Diamandis' differing lyrical approach. There are points where she sounds fairly genuine, such as Mowgli's chorus of "I don't know who I want to be," (which is amusingly contradicted to the word in Oh No!, incidentally) but it feels pushed too far and comes across as melodramatic when she's singing lines like "it's my problem if I have no friends and feel I want to die" on Satisfied. Then, there are times when she takes a turn for the snotty and obnoxious, a la Ke$ha (or better yet, Uffie), like with Hollywood's gratingly asinine "Oh my gwad, you look just like Shakira, no no, you're Catherine Zeta, ACKshully my name's Marina," or pretty much the whole of Girls. Hollywood also comes across as trying to convey a sort of message about misplaced values in America and society in general (along with "If you are not very careful, your possessions will possess you, TV taught me how to feel, now real life has no appeal" from Oh No!), which honestly come out sounding completely laughable. The songs work best when Diamandis doesn't feel like she's trying in earnest to be something, to embrace some empty attitude, but unfortunately these moments are few and far between.
Marina and the Diamonds' debut is a very fun, and at times highly refreshing slice of pop. But while it's entirely possible to play the wounded songstress, the cocky and ambitious maneater, and the messenger of irony all on the same album, Diamandis tries too hard to achieve each of these, and handles them clumsily with awkward, forced delivery and trite lyrics better suited for simpler, more pop friendly topics. Despite this, she is a tremendously talented songwriter, showing far more creativity than most other pop starlets around today. Plus, even the irritating songs can grow on you. After listening to The Family Jewels long enough, you can find yourself happily singing along to some pretty stupid shit - which I suppose is one of the hallmarks of a good pop record.