‘Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land’ is a Joyous, Queer Return to the MARINA Days of Yore

Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land

Originally written and published by me for PopMatters.

Before she returned with her last record Love + Fear in 2019, pop enigma Marina Diamandis—formerly Marina and the Diamonds, now simply Marina—had spent a few years soul searching. She returned to school to study psychology at the University of London and even started a blog to discuss mental health and well-being. After spending nearly all of her time since adolescence being “obsessed” with becoming a successful musician, she decided it was time for a break. Love + Fear marked her musical comeback as well as a new beginning, dropping the stage name that made her an indie pop cult favorite in the early 2010s. Now, Diamandis refers to that time as “probably the worst period” of her adult life.

The singer has always wrestled with making pop music that’s both commercially viable and true to her vision as an artist and innovator. Her 2010 debut The Family Jewels was an almost instant favorite, setting the scene for a career defined by unconventional fashion choices and a distinctive stage presence, but she was pressured by her label and a culture obsessed with Max Martin to make a more conventional follow-up. Diamandis managed to insert her own bold stylistic confidence into Electra Heart, which featured Dr. Luke-like collaborations, and returned to her self-written roots for the indie-synth heavy Froot in 2015.

Love + Fear is likely her most commercial attempt to date, and while the end result was nothing short of the campy and thoughtful pop that only Marina can make, it ultimately didn’t resonate as strongly or in the same ways as its predecessors. But with her fifth studio album Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, yet another return to solely her own words, the singer re-embraces her inner strength and has quite possibly created her magnum opus. (Diamandis even characterizes it as her best album.)

You don’t have to be like everybody else / You don’t have to fit into the norm / You are not here to conform,” she boldly asserts on the opening title track, as a reminder to both listeners and herself. “I am here to take a look inside myself / Recognize that I could be the eye, the eye of the storm.” The central theme of the record finds itself here, one that champions (without being preachy) the old souls and underdogs who have never been able to conform, the same ones who have always found themselves seen and reflected in Marina’s lyrics and stage presence. In addition to creating a safe space for those soldiers, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land also promotes the singer’s signature brand of confidence: the one we sometimes have to fake when forced to fold into inauthentic versions of ourselves.

Even as Marina’s attempts at more marketable pop always managed to retain an unmistakable dash of individuality that only she can deliver, one can’t help but sense that she feels that she’s lost herself in moments of trying to live up to somebody else’s ideal. “I never quite fit in to that Hollywood thing / I didn’t play that game for the money or the fame / I did it my way, baby / Nothing in this world could change me,” she proclaims on “Venus Fly Trap,” an anthemic ode to being the most authentic versions of ourselves, however messy or queer. And as she repeats the line “nothing in this world could change me” over production that instantly recalls the days of The Family Jewels but with lyrics and confidence she could have never had back then, we know she means it this time.

At only 37 minutes long, the album is the perfect length. “Purge the Poison,” “New America,” and “Pandora’s Box” combine her pop culture awareness with her eccentric brand of social consciousness, taking on anything and everything from Harvey Weinstein, capitalism, or seeking justice for Britney Spears. The second half of Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land is, like most Marina albums, highly introspective. “Highly Emotional People” recalls the emotive songwriting on Love + Fear, creating another avenue for dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health. Meanwhile, “I Love You But I Love Me More,” “Flowers,” and “Goodbye” represent the end of a relationship: perhaps the one she recently ended with Clean Bandit member Jack Patterson, or maybe the toxic one she shared with the universe that we’ve all been forced to come to terms with over the last year.

“The pandemic allowed a lot of us to step back and look at what kind of lives we’re living, and nothing feels sustainable,” the singer told The New York Times. “I like seeing comments like, ‘She used capitalism to get where she is,’ because it does make me think about my own place. But we’re all allowed to challenge the system that we’re in.” And if lines like “whatever you give life, you will get back” are indicative of anything, it’s that the best of lives are waiting for us, and certainly Marina, on the other side.

Rating: 8/10

Jeffrey’s favorites from Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land: “Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land,” “Venus Fly Trap,” “Man’s World,” “Purge the Poison,” “Highly Emotional People,” “New America,” and “Pandora’s Box”