A stunning night of pop in South Kensington. Again.
I was a little apprehensive as I headed out to see Marina for the first time on Friday night. I’d gotten the impression that her audience skewed heavily towards teens and twenty-somethings, and my worry was that 44 year old me would feel drastically out of place. It didn’t help to see armies of teen girls at South Ken station being escorted to the Royal Albert Hall by their mums and dads who were much closer to my own age bracket. But as it turned out, I needn’t have worried – as with the Rae Morris concert I attended last year, the audience was a diverse mix of ages and while I was definitely amongst the older fans, I was far from the oldest person there.
I first started to listen to Marina back in 2013 when I stumbled across “Electra Heart”. The album was everything I needed to hear at the time – an angry, spiky woman railing against the double standards and mind games that we so often have to put up with in our relationships with the opposite sex. Then in 2015 I was even more impressed with “Froot”, which marked her out as a unique songwriter with an idiosyncratic aptitude for melody and a playfully dark take on the world.
This year has seen the release of her fourth album “Love + Fear”. I’ve seen criticism from some quarters that with this release she has shorn off her spiky edges to provide a shiny, uncomplicated pop veneer to the new tunes. I can’t really argue with this, but it doesn’t change the fact that “Love + Fear” is a stunning collection of pop songs which this concert showcased masterfully..
The night got off to a surprising start for me when I found I had to move seats. It seems that when the tickets were put on sale, provisions had not been made for the huge projectors that Marina would be using for her set, which blocked the view of a number of seats, including mine. So I was moved from a position at the back of the stalls to right by the side of the stage. I was happy with this, as I like to be as close as possible at gigs, though the side-on nature of the seat meant that my view of the proceedings was slightly restricted. Still, compared to the view I’d had from the circle five weeks previously to see Take That, it was definitely an upgrade.
Support came in the shape of some pleasant dance-pop from Icelandic singer Glowie, and if I didn’t already feel old enough, Wikipedia informs me she was born a few days after I turned 22. Following this the mood was set by a selection of Greek songs interspersed with stomping electro disco tunes.
Marina’s set started promptly at 8.30pm, and she immediately lived up to my expectations of her, full of poise and charisma but with a sense of cheeky fun. Beginning with “Handmade Heaven”, the contemplative lead single from “Love + Fear”, Marina glided across the stage, an explosion of pink chiffon, while two dancers twirled around her and the lighting cast a zebra-striped shadow over everything. It was hugely effective, like being transported into a beautiful, magical and slightly sinister realm.
It was then straight into the strident pop of “Hollywood” from her debut album, which was met with huge screams. Interestingly however, throughout the night it was often the newer songs that were met with the greatest enthusiasm, and they truly shone in their live renditions. Recent single “Superstar” benefited greatly from its underscore of muscular percussion and the addition of live vocals for the “ooh ooh ooh” refrain.
The stage set was very simple: just a few white fabric covered blocks which were swiftly re-jigged between songs to provide a raised platform for Marina to sing from at different sides of the stage, or steps to saunter gracefully down. Onto these were projected a variety of different light shows: sparkling stars, a sunset gradient, shimmering waves. It was simple but very effective, especially in combination with Marina’s team of four multi-talented individuals, three women and one man, who alternately took on duties of dancing, backing vocals, percussion and, for “Life Is Strange”, what was apparently an electric cello. Additionally, at intervals a keyboard would be wheeled out for Marina to sit down and play some of her slower tracks, such as the broodily intense “To Be Human” and an incredibly stunning “Happy”.
It was a little bit odd that there was no live band present, and I believe this was the first concert I have witnessed where the backing was entirely on tape. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the night, but it did make things feel a little disjointed at times, especially in those between-song moments where often Marina and her dancers would just stand in position for a few seconds before the track started. With a live band present, the interaction between performers and musicians makes these transitions feel a bit more organic and seamless.
Overall this evening was a showcase of an incredible performer with a unique and compelling back catalogue of fantastic pop songs. However, for all its majesty, I’m not sure the Royal Albert Hall was the best venue for the show. Many sections of the crowd were up and dancing throughout, but the front rows – myself included – were a little less inclined to stand, creating the odd awkward moment where Marina instructed us to stand. Perhaps, like me, the others at the front felt a bit self conscious and exposed, with no barrier to disguise less than brilliant dancing skills. Though I usually do like to be up and dancing at pop gigs, this night I was more content to just sit and take it all in. I have to say, for all I enjoyed the evening immensely, I’d love to see this show in a standing setting at for example the Hammersmith Apollo.
The absolute highlight of the night for me was the encore, which began with the sinister “End of the Earth” from “Love + Fear”, a moody exploration of the perils of love which exploded into a chaos of percussion and stuttering strobes. The show ended with a triumphant “How To Be A Heartbreaker” and finally everyone in the venue was up and dancing for one last song before tumbling out into the cold spring evening.
Marina definitely lived up to my expectations of her and more. She is unquestionably one of the best pop songwriters and performers in the world today, and deserves much greater recognition than she has yet received. I’ll definitely go to see her again next time she plays London, and just hope it will be on a pulsating dancefloor rather than a grand old theatre.