Marnie Stern - The Chronicles of Marnia | Album Review | By Volume

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Marnie Stern

The Chronicles of Marnia

Be somebody, forever.

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Author: on May 22, 2013
Kill Rock Stars
April 19, 2013

The Chronicles of Marnia is a lot of things: a compelling movie montage stopping short of a latter-day Rocky conclusion, a fantasy story diving through parallel worlds (and parrying pre-existent ones – that’s surely a nod to David Foster Wallace on the album’s first track, tying itself from the hand of one knotty artist to another), and a frenetic, bombastic workout, the kind that exists as a self-sacrificing ritual. It’s a cobbled together homage, in other words; it belongs to Marnie Stern with love from others, seen as she admires and mischievously modernises literature for her own world (where does Wallace exist now? Marnia, that wonderful world where everyone’s omnipotent), or it’s given to the listener, a mountain so high that if you climb it you may never get to the top, but at least you’ll get to yourself. “Nothing is easy!” she positively spits on a song with the same shit-kicking words as its title, pushing a little further into her can-do, can-be world. It might sound like she’s mingling with old ones, but between her and her citizens, Stern is making new gods.

This makes Marnia the most explicable of Stern’s albums yet. Her guitar exercises and fast, aggressive taps are spiritualised, played with fervour that doesn’t get you lost for the fun of it, but rather clasps you on the back a hundred times, celebrating limitless power as both eternal and fluctuating. Stern even leaves Marnia with her favourite joke: finality. “Hell Yes” begins with a noisy guitar solo that eventually intersects, and closes with a cosmological paradox to have and hold: “All I’ve got is time”. Marnia becomes a world beyond just its soundtrack, a place that hasn’t been mapped out with enthralling high fantasy – for all I know, this faraway land is as colourless and bland as Marnia’s artwork, a lifetime in a parking lot with a cup of coffee to keep you up – but at least has companions. And what’s important isn’t the scenery: it’s the rules, and the fact that you would do best by daring to break them. Stern wields her guitar with what one might call motivational transcendence, playing sharp, homogenous notes on “Immortals” as if she has split open the heavens for a few seconds, just to remind you they’re there. Like that, her guitar playing isn’t exercised, or laboured, or math – it’s an ecstatic reaction to the realisation that life is a wellspring. What Marnia homages is eternity.

Marnia is as fixed in place as every Stern album, its fluctuating jerks given only a circle of space around your body, but it’s less frustrated with its standstill adventures, and a lot less callous. Its crises show as wearing on Stern rather than battling her. Between her dizzying, excited themes of self-help and deifying, there are moments of doubt like “Proof of Life”, in which she counts the sores on her feet instead of running on the spot at breakneck speeds. This kind of self-imposed rumination gets a lot of its power from her rotation of drummer. Zach Hill’s drumming is its own, wonderful presence on earlier Stern records, as torrid as a Death Grips album, but replacement Kid Millions performs these songs with empathy for what particular drama exists at what times. Between Stern’s desperate, clock-ticking guitar and its central, remote piano chords, “Proof of Life” boasts a rumbling drumbeat that feels the sand run out of the top, getting more frantic when Stern’s tribute comes out unsuccessful. His contained explosions multiply as her hope diminishes, as she moves from trepid questions that don’t get posed – “Give me a sign” – to a devastated, winked solipsism:  “I am nothing, I am no one”. For an album about life, the universe and everything, Stern is still the protagonist, even when her masters won’t talk back, and her band-leading on Marnia is acutely aware of who it is giving out God magic.

The aggression of earlier Stern records would be sadly missed – its adrenaline rush a necessity for her often loopy, excellently prankish songs – if it were not being channelled to serve something more important for Marnia’s sermons. Here she tones down and uses her fuel for interrogation, the kind that is more incredulous about its intentions than it is violent in extracting you. On “Noonan” she cuts out of the funk her song is entrapped in to ask a question of her underlings, one chord per lifetime: “Don’t you wanna be somebody?” she demands, almost saddened by any answer that might veer towards “No”. In this world something always exists in the place of nothing; Stern even resolves “I am something” on the surrendering “Proof of Life”, remembering to be affectionate about existence. It’s the opposite of nihilistic noise rock, plying your mind with the idea of meaningful mysteries: “There are no coincidences”, she says, and in a world where anyone can live forever, or be who they want to be, or just do anything, really, meaning is self-contained. It’s a living citizen of Marnia itself. “It’s a pretty good mystery”, Stern sings at one point in her time on this world, somewhere between absent-minded and full of purpose. Her homage is good for about infinity.

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