Melanie Martinez - Portals album review: back to nature in a delightfully weird way
It’s ironic that New York musician Melanie Martinez first found fame as a 17-year-old on the US version of The Voice, where judges first assess you on the basis of that quality alone. Over a decade on, her breathy, babygirl singing is the least striking thing about a music career that has put everything into the visual.
She always looked unusual, with gap teeth and a split-screen hairdo, but the look became ever more cartoonish and her videos were never less than immaculately outlandish. By 2019 and her second album, K-12, she had graduated to writing, directing and starring in a full-length accompanying movie, which mixed pastel schoolgirl cutesiness with the dark and surreal.
So by this point, understandably, her fanbase is in with both feet. As with Taylor Swift, they’re invited to consider a new album as an “era”. They hunt ravenously for subtle references in lyrics and social media clips, and a blessed handful are singled out for special attention.
In a rather too literal interpretation of the fondness for inserting bonus content ‘easter eggs’ in current creative work, Martinez has built hype for these new songs by posting white chocolate eggs to a few superfans, inside which were flash drives containing song snippets. Every lyric on this album has been discovered and transcribed online well before release day.
It’ll be a bold fan that copies the look of this era, though. Martinez emerges from an egg in her reintroductory video as an alien creature with four eyes, a cat’s mouth, fairy wings and gigantic crimped ears. The surrounding dank forest landscape is referenced in songs such as Leeches, with its jungle night noises beneath the plucked electric guitar, and the pretty, violent Nymphology: “Cut you off, watch you die/Just a fairy with a knife.”
Björk got there first with the extreme physical transformations and immersive nature songs. Musically, Martinez is less adventurous than the Icelandic experimentalist but a good deal more accessible. Evil has a delicious mix of sweet digitised vocals and rumbling rock guitar. Faerie Soirée skips along on restless Latin beats. The comeback single, Death, floats through a number of intriguing stages before ending up at a thundering finale.
However, anyone who sees a picture of her first will find it hard not to find the songs comparatively lacking. For the complete Martinez experience, the album isn’t enough.