Friday, August 14, 2015

Cry Baby | Melanie Martinez



The last moments of Melanie Martinez's debut album are filled with echoes of "So what if I'm crazy? All the best people are. The best people are crazy, the best people are..." What a way to end a record that spends 13 tracks convincing listeners that the singer-songwriter - or her alter ego - is one of the most creative of those "best people."

A concept album that blends reality and fantasy, Cry Baby integrates an entire storyboard of a young alter ego of the same name - the same emotional little girl introduced to us over year ago on Martinez's debut single, "Dollhouse." She's the daughter of an alcoholic mother and unfaithful father, and the sister of a pothead teenage brother. Martinez is formally paralleled to the character on the album's opening title track, a twisted meeting point of trip-hop and childish little clinks on which she pouts, "They call me cry baby, cry baby, but I don't fucking care." An accompanying album booklet ties each song into a children's book about the life, love, heartbreak, and revenge of Cry Baby; the book is key to understanding back-to-back tracks "Tag, You're It" and "Milk & Cookies." On the former, our heroine tells the story of her kidnapping by a wolf that eerily parallels a horrific rape ("Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a lady by her toes / If she squeals, don't let her go [...] Running through the parking lot, he chased and he wouldn't stop / Tag, you're it"). Then, she scripts a homicide threat for her kidnapper with the (ab)use of nursery rhymes on "Milk & Cookies," as if she is Natalie Maines and the wolf is named Earl.

The use of immature themes to convey harsh realities leads to an album that is lyrically solid and fresh. Take the twisted perspective on a classic toy to make a statement on society's superficial focus ("Don't be dramatic, it's only some plastic / No one will love you if you're unattractive / Oh Mrs. Potato Head tell me, is it true that pain is beauty? / Does a new face come with a warranty? / Will a new face make it better?") on the must-hear "Mrs. Potato Head," or the babbles, toy piano clicks, and double-sided phrases that camouflage an unhappy relationship with a know-it-all ("I know my ABCs, yet you keep teaching me / I say fuck your degree, alphabet boy / You think you're smarter than me with all your bad poetry?") on "Alphabet Boy." She also pays homage to the ultimate anthem of immaturity, Lesley Gore's "It's My Party," on her own "Pity Party." Borrowing Gore's hook, Martinez's track is an explosive temper-tantrum that resorts to bigger consequences than just crying at her party for one: "I'll cry until the candles burn down this place / I'll cry until my pity party's in flames."

The demented, childlike influences are not limited to lyrics and imagery, but also carry over to production and vocal delivery as a complete commitment to Cry Baby's persona. (For the best comparison, may I say that Martinez is to Cry Baby as Marina and the Diamonds is to Electra Heart?) Sometimes, these influences come off as cutesy, such as the ill-fitting popping bubbles that are used as the main element of the drop in "Soap," but more often than not, they just throw Martinez's music into a psychotic state. "Carousel" was the go-to song for FX's American Horror Story: Freak Show promo clips, and for good reason: she only had to add some trip-hop beats and little Lolita vocals to a familiar carnival tune to create a spooky soundscape. "Mad Hatter" follows the same sinister guidelines as she claims insanity over an industrial instrumental from a haunted house soundtrack gone awry. (Her doe-eyed appearance only amp up the creepiness of her music and video ideas, too. For a case in point, check out the accompanying clip to the immersive "Sippy Cup.")

Martinez isn't the first and won't be the last to play the surreal 'deranged child' card, but she pulls it off with consistent authenticity. The concept is stretched just short of becoming redundant, the production accents current trip-hop-meets-pop trends with a strong touch of childish sparkle, and the vocals, while limited and filtered for effect in many areas, are sufficient. Separation from the Cry Baby character could be a challenge for Martinez in her next album cycle, especially because the lyrics and themes of this record are really what make her stick out from the crowd, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, let's embrace the success of her debut. So what if introducing an alter ego and letting it loose across an entire album so early in her career was crazy? All the best ideas are.

Cry Baby will be available on August 14, 2015 under Atlantic Recordings. Standard and deluxe editions will be available.

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