I first read about Marnie Stern in now defunct music magazine Plan B a few years ago. I had never heard her music, but in the interview she said that Sleater-Kinney changed her life. So, of course, I listened to her first album In Advance of the Broken Arm and was blown away. It was chaotic and glorious and you couldn’t help but smile at the sheer audaciousness of it. I mean, she’s self-taught and just listen to her. A year later she released This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, showcasing even more chaos and manic energy, yet also highlighting the progression of the technical skills which earned her critical acclaim so early in her career. Then, I think, was when the biggest split in her career appeared. It was two years before her third album, Marnie Stern, was released and while the chaos factor was still there we also began to hear something resembling coherence, something you could dance to, something I could run to. In this respect, I think Marnie Stern’s first two albums are almost tentative feeling-outs. Experimentation on a grand scale that worked in its own way and announced an exciting new act who wasn’t afraid to try something different. On her next two albums, Marnie Stern and forthcoming album The Chronicles of Marnia, you hear a progression towards what Marnie herself calls an attempt to “make things less nutso.”
This is her first album without drummer Zach Hill, her first with a producer and the first on which she admits to focussing on “songwriting. Not guitar playing.” The Chronicles of Marnia was recorded over three weeks last year in Brooklyn and in becoming something ‘less nutso’ it manages to strike a balance between the frenetic energy of her previous albums and a new warmth and cohesiveness to the songs. This much is immediately obvious when you listen to album opener and lead single Year of the Glad, on which Marnie declares herself “On a mission, the beginning / New finds and old dreams/ And everything's starting now." It’s an odd statement of intent for an album she worries may be her last as the realities of working outside the mainstream in the music industry begin to raise their ugly heads. Yet, there’s optimism here, a need for something new even if it may be the last. Then we’re straight into the twists and turns and twinkling finger-tapping of You Don’t Turn Down; you can really hear just how clear Marnie’s vocals are on this album. Normally muffled under layers of sound and effects, they’re brought to the fore on this and the following track Noonan with a searching refrain of “Don’t you want to be somebody?” There are the layers of guitar and drumming (ably handled by Kid Millions of Oneida) of yore, but rather than overpowering and threatening to collapse in on the song they strengthen and bolster as it progresses. It happens over and over on the album. There are moments where it sounds sparse compared to previous efforts, yet sparse does not mean boring and there are still new tricks and elements of the ‘nutso’ abound. Tracks like Immortals zig and zag, and The Chronicles of Marnia revels in syncopation, speed and all that before we get to prog-rock-anthem Proof of Life. Here, Marnie channels Bowie through her own unique filter as she pleads with the universe to “give her a sign” of life. Album closer Hell Yes is a race to the finish, as joyous a closer as Year of the Glad is an opener. In it we hear Marnie’s new-found ability to come full circle and relish in the strength of her songwriting as well as her ability to shred like a motherfucker. Yet, I feel for all this that the end should be more explosive than it is. I don’t think this is the result of Marnie Stern having lost anything, but rather it could serve as a promise to herself that no matter what she says this could never be the last album purely because it feels unfinished at the end. At least, that’s what I believe.
The Chronicles of Marnia is, as the title suggests, an introspective piece of work by an artist who has never done the same thing twice during an impressive career which she has crammed into the relatively brief span of six years. Her earlier work may be stellar in terms of the places she travelled to deliver the soundscapes captured, but Marnie Stern has looked inside herself and found a universe as intriguing as anything she has shared with us before. Long may it continue.
Chronicles of Marnia by Marnie Stern is out on 18th March via Kill Rock Stars.