Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land
2021 • POP • ATLANTIC
On her fifth record, Welsh singer and songwriter Marina delivers her best work to date: catchy hooks, great production, and well-written lyrics. However, everything about it sounds old.
In an interview with Vogue, Welsh singer Marina talked about how pop music was an important instrument for her artistic catharsis, for her to assume the role of both a political activist and a brilliant diva. “People tend to shy away from these kinds of issues in songs, but pop music is such an amazing vehicle to discuss those issues, and it doesn’t matter if people agree with you or not, it’s a conversation starter. That’s the most powerful thing about art,” she said. For a long time, Marina’s music didn’t seem to take itself too seriously, however, in her latest release, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, her fifth full-length album, she finally paints herself as a confident artist, delivering her strongest, most ambitious and concise project so far.
Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land was written almost entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Marina began working on the album in January 2020, shortly after her tour for her fourth album, 2019’s Love + Fear. The situation that the virus established in the world last year made Marina rethink her life until then. “I felt this anger at myself for life I’ve been living and we’ve all been coaxed into living. The way we were living pre-COVID wasn’t sustainable or, to be honest, enjoyable,” she said. Thus, the entire current context had a direct influence on the construction of the album. Alongside catchy pop beats and dated-sounding energetic hooks, Marina sweeps deep into our society and her life in Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, speaking directly, for the first time, about everything that was choking on her throat in recent years. She’s never looked so strong, determined, and free like this.
One of the most potent factors in Marina’s new album is how she has grown not only as a person but as a civil individual who seems to finally understand her place in society, all the political issues and has become aware of the movements. In one of 2015’s Froot song, “Can’t Pin Me Down,” Marina sings, “Do you really want me to write feminist anthem/I’m happy cooking dinner in the kitchen for my husband.” In Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, however, she goes to the other side, understanding the position of women in today’s society. In “Man’s World,” the lead single, she sings one of the best lines of her entire career alongside a dark, mystical, and mysterious sound. She stars, “Burnt me at the stake, you thought I was a witch/Centuries ago, now you just call me a bitch,” and continues later, “Marilyn’s bungalow, it’s number seven/In the pink palace where men made her legend/Owned by a sheik who killed thousands of gay men.” It is an ecofeminist anthem more comprehensive than most others. In the next track, “Purge the Poison,” she continues her journey, delivering a cartoonish sound based on 1980s rock and even more direct and fearless lyrics, talking about sexism, homophobia, racism, and environmental problems. She says on the hook, “Need to purge the poison, show us our humanity/All the bad and good, racism and misogyny/Nothing’s hidden anymore, capitalism made us poor/God, forgive America for every single war.”
Although these two songs are probably the best on the album, Marina is still able to deliver other songs where her political, social, and economic vision is equally strong. “New America,” for example, is almost an open letter to American society. She begins the song by singing about former President Donald Trump’s government, “Everything that made you great only made you bad.” Next, a vivid picture of the traditional family pattern that has been painted by conservatives is examined, “You got a white picket fence and your dad’s got a gun/And when you see the police, there’s no reason to run/You got a job, and a car, and a good dental plan/You got health insurance, pocket money.” In the dancing chorus, she ends, “America, you can’t bury the truth/It’s time to pay your dues.” On the same hand, “Pandora’s Box” shows the singer in the role of a woman who faces various psychological illnesses and who is passive to an abusive relationship — “I’ve escaped many vices/Like drugs and alcohol/But I can never escape/The war inside my skull.” Finally, looking from the other side, “Highly Emotional People” is a letter with open arms for all those suffering from depression. On the bridge, she sings indignantly but feeling helpless, “People say men don’t cry/It’s so much easier to just lie/’Til somebody takes their life.”
Stepping out of Marina’s new passion that seems to be finally coming to fruition, the other songs are relatively good, although they don’t have that much sparkle. The album’s opener, the title track, is extremely catchy with the singer doing a quick historical read on humanity and talking about how our predecessors struggled to have the life we have today and we still worry about superficial things. Much more than a great production, the lyrics are very well written, with a very very interesting lyrical structure. Later on in the album, likewise, “I Love You But I Love Me More” arrives as one of the most mesmerizing of the project, with Marina’s vocals sounding like magic that wants to seduce the listener into a modern and vintage universe built by guitars and drums.
In the end, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land does indeed have great production and impeccable lyrics. It would be one of the best albums of the year… 10 years ago. This is the big problem with the record, its sonority, although impeccable, looks like songs from a decade ago, not in the technical sense, but in the stylistic sense. Take, for example, “Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land,” which while good and fun, still sounds like something Britney Spears would release in 2009. Likewise, “Venus Fly Trap” and “New Americana” sound like a curious electropop mix of something between Madonna and Lady Gaga. Even “Highly Emotional People,” which in turn sometimes sounds like part of the soundtrack to some dark teen movie based on a best-selling book from the 2000s.
Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land’s final stretch is perhaps, however, the weakest and most forgettable moment on the record. “Flowers,” is the most faded one. Marina appears in it in front of a piano that sounds very small, singing about how her ex should have treated her better. The final track, meanwhile, “Goodbye” sounds a little more poignant, with her singing about abandoning her worst phase for something better. “Goodbye to the girl that I was/Goodbye to the girl that you lost,” she sings. However, the melody hook sounds extremely generic and like something you’ve probably heard hundreds of times before. In other words, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land starts very well, has an excellent middle but a very disappointing ending. But despite everything, it’s Marina’s best album to date, that you can’t deny at all.