At 36 minutes, and 10 tracks, in length, ‘Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land’ is, by a significant margin, Marina’s shortest album to date. Yet, it’s also one of her most interesting, captivating LPs. ‘Ancient Dreams’ is effectively an album of two halves; one half high-energy political anthems, the other reflective sombre ballads.
Political commentary has always been a dicey issue for Marina. On the one hand, she’s become something of a Gay-icon over the years and has showcased a preternatural talent for cultural commentary in her music: “Is it a human trait or is it learned behaviour? / Are you killing for yourself or killing for your saviour?” she asked on the excellent ‘Savages’. On the other hand, her commentary hasn’t always hit the right tone; most notably when she equated mental illness and being a police officer. ‘Ancient Dreams’ reflects this uneasy conflict, with it’s political commentary hitting and missing in equal measure.
‘Purge The Poison’ is an eclectic banger punctuated with fast-paced vocal delivery and hand-claps. The track – released in April 2021 – was originally teased in early 2020; where the lyric “Britney shaved her head and all we did was call her crazed” was revealed. Given the explosion of the ‘Free Britney’ movement months later, the lyric became unexpectedly prescient.
‘New America’, meanwhile, feels like a more direct follow-up to ‘Hollywood’; with it’s scathing condemnation of the America of past and present. On the track, Diamandis lists of a number of privileges (“good dental plan”, “health insurance”) before exclaiming “Damn!” It’s a Marinaism that recalls some of her greatest hits; ‘Oh No!’ and ‘Hollywood’ among them. ‘Man’s World’ pulls a similar trick. Marina states in the second verse: “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’s an almost depressingly crushing image; the once-home of a trailblazing icon owned by a murderous homophobe, but Marina shifts the mood, remarking with her tongue firmly in her cheek, “I guess that’s why he bought the campest hotel in LA then”.
The commentary of ‘Ancient Dreams’ doesn’t always stick the landing quite so effectively however. There’s a lyric one the aforementioned ‘Man’s World’ that sticks out like a sore-thumb: “If you have a mother, daughter or a friend / Maybe it is time, time you comprehend / The world you live in ain’t the same one as them”. The lyric is clearly alluding to the shared reality of women, but then, the use of the gender non-specific “friend” after listing “mother, daughter” is eyebrow-raising and seems to exist solely so it can be rhymed with “comprehend”.
‘New America’, while still brilliant, contains one odd-ball reference where Marina sings “Fucked with food chain / Fucked with the farming too / And now our food don’t taste like it’s meant to”. It’s an odd and mysterious line that’s never further elaborated on; how has America “fucked with food chain” and why doesn’t food “taste like it’s meant too”. While surely not intended as such, the line almost comes off as a bizarre stand against GMOs and unlike the issues referenced in the rest of the song, the issue of bad farming practices and animal cruelty hardly seems unique to America.
The best lyrical moments of the album occur when Marina is at her most vulnerable; when she leaves her preaching mode to look inward and reflect. ‘Highly Emotional People’ conveys a societal and cultural message – about how society pressures the repressing of emotions – but this time it is rooted in personal experience (“Sometimes it’s hard to tell me how you feel / I never you see you cry”). When Marina sings “people say men don’t cry / It’s so much easier to just lie / ‘Til somebody takes their life”, it’s breath-taking; delivering all the emotional heft intended.
‘Ancient Dreams’ is Marina’s first album since breaking up with Clean Bandit’s Jack Patterson – who co-produced some of her last studio album ‘Love + Fear’; an overly-hated, yet still regrettably commercial-sounding project. The end result is an album that while containing some lovably familiar bragadocious moments, also contains some of Marina’s most intimate to date; to the point where Marina even said she cried while trying to record final track ‘Goodbye’. ‘Pandora’s Box’ sees Marina open up about a troubled history of mental illness (“I’ve escaped many vices / Like drugs and alcohol / But I can never escape / The war inside my mind”). ‘Flowers’, meanwhile, is a damning indictment of an ex (“You didn’t think I was serious / I guess you felt so safe”, “With every careless action you let me slip away”) and compares a past relationship to a flower that never bloomed buds, but only “thorns and leaves”. ‘Goodbye’, however, finds her with a more loving approach towards her ex (“I hope you’ll always be happy”). Like ‘Flowers’, it’s a perhaps-too-conventional piano ballad, but there’s no doubting the emotion behind it is blisteringly real.
‘Ancient Dreams’ at moments recalls ‘The Family Jewels’, ‘Electra Heart’ and ‘Froot’, but mostly recalls none of them at all; charting an entirely new and exciting path for the Welsh artist. Marina’s music has always been wild and has always refused to conform (just look at ‘The Family Jewels’), but ‘Ancient Dreams’ is perhaps her boldest, campest and most eclectic statement of artistry to date; with retro power-pop and Kate Bush style vocal inflections delivered in the handful. The album isn’t perfect and at times there’s a sense that Marina’s reflections feel far more ground-breaking to her than they really are, but Marina’s music has always been better for it’s rough edges. ‘Ancient Dreams’ is the sound of a liberated artist, continuing to chart new and exciting paths as her career undergoes a surprise renaissance (in thanks, partly, to the social media sharing site TikTok). In casting aside old relationships and old societal norms, Marina has truly embraced the art of letting go.
Best Tracks: Venus Fly Trap, Man’s World, Purge The Poison, New America, I Love You But I Love Me More
Worst Tracks: (none are bad, but….) ‘Flowers’