The charts had better watch out for whenever Frank Ocean finally makes his return, because Melanie Martinez unexpectedly blowing past six figures and putting up what is sure to stand as one of the better debut weeks of the year shows just what happens when you keep a dedicated fanbase waiting. Taking some time away from the spotlight after 2019’s K-12 and its accompanying film, Martinez kicked off the promo cycle for this one with various videos of strange, four-eyed creatures hatching from eggs. And while it might be a little too obviously Björkian, doing away with the Cry Baby character – who seems to have suffered a tragic off-screen death – and moving forward with music that retains the uniqueness of her work while letting listeners in on her own life and perspectives for the first time was a great move. With an overarching theme of rebirth and the cycle of life, continuing to play into her typically macabre approach, Martinez sets to work on applying her horror imagery – complete with sound effects of creaking doors and snapping bones – to tell new stories. Now closing in on a decade of relevance, Martinez laid the foundation for all of the bland TikTok knockoffs featuring a cutesy persona, a gothic vibe, and lyrical shock value. In that regard, she’s still at the top of her game.
Martinez’s flair for the cinematic is a huge part of why her songs can be so compelling, right down to the vocal performance she brings to the table. Her instrument is already one of the industry’s most unique, the breathy sneer now frequently given more space to shine over somber acoustics but still rising above the electronic cascades. Opening track “DEATH” kicks off with heartbeats and heavy breathing as the life cycle begins and Martinez descends upon the track with some striking harmonies. They soundtrack an orchestral overture before a massive electropop beat and breakdown continue to show us her ambitious spirit, drum fills getting progressively more intense as the track unfolds. Really, it’s just a song to herald her return to the music scene, but it’s one of the more artistic ways that she could have done it. The cinematic aspects continue as Martinez attacks her poppiest hooks like an actress on the verge of tears, making them hit even harder. “VOID” has received a lot of attention upon release, and for a good reason. With a big of a pop-rock drive, like Martinez is taking advantage of the recent emo boom she always seemed a little meant for, she seems to be singing about battling her old self and desperately trying to escape some of the more distasteful moments of her past character – with lyrics like “tangled in my own intestines” that only could have come from her.
“TUNNEL VISION” brings us the first of a couple great Imogen Heap-style glitchy a cappella moments, and it’s the track that feels most like the marriage of her two personae. With some music box notes set to a modern trap beat, it feels like a spiritual sequel to her K-12 consent anthem “Strawberry Shortcake” – now directed at an ex-partner. Part of what made Martinez so impactful when she came onto the scene was her angelic, breathy tone delivering blunt and sometimes horrifying messages, and her upper range here as she asserts that she’s more than an object of desire continues to work for just that reason. “FAERIE SOIREE” is a brief experiment that lasts for less than two minutes before another a cappella outro, and it’s one that doesn’t quite click together – with an Afrobeats groove and Latin guitar, something about Martinez’s tone and the less memorable melody it delivers doesn’t fit. That tone is showcased fully on the next track “LIGHT SHOWER,” a low-key acoustic ballad that finds her toasting to a new love interest, again, in the morbid way that only she could as the track begins to feel a little like a theme song for the movie Bones and All. Singing about finding real love for the first time after a long line of mistreatment, Martinez’s vocals are touching and vulnerable – it’s the kind of voice I could listen to for hours. “SPIDER WEB” closes the front half with some oom-pah circus energy and a fun breakdown as Martinez touches on the negative impact of social media, which threatened to hurt her career when false allegations arose between album cycles. She powerfully compares this to a spreading spiderweb we’re all getting stuck in, waiting for the arachnid to sink its teeth in.
The track “LEECHES” essentially grabs the acoustic backdrop from “LIGHT SHOWER” and the anti-hater message of “SPIDER WEB” and combines them into one song, making it feel a little less essential to the album for that reason – but it’s still great to hear Martinez’s vocals without a lot of instrumental distraction. A little quirky and disjointed in its rhythms, it helps to evoke the creepy-crawly horror feel the lyrics bring about as well. “BATTLE OF THE LARYNX,” on the other hand, is a full-on stadium pop-rock anthem. The prechorus might be one of the catchiest melodies Martinez has ever written, and putting her best Avril Lavigne-esque sneer over the crunchy guitars certainly helps. The little breaths in the explosive chorus and the elasticity of her vocals make the melodies even more intoxicating as she draws out lines and lyrics in unique ways – she truly sounds like she was born with natural Auto-Tune sometimes. “THE CONTORTIONIST,” as well, is a huge standout track here that showcases why Martinez is such a singular voice in the music industry. Talking about twisting herself into knots for others, complete with the grisly noises in the background, Martinez combines a bubblegum pop melody over pizzicato strings with a completely unhinged chorus rife with maniacal laughter. Lady Gaga might need to step aside, because the track finds Martinez making her case to be the next Harley Quinn.
While she’s usually a little more poetic with it, a couple of the final tracks contain the most overt shade directed at Martinez’s former partner Oliver Tree. “MOON CYCLE” finds her co-opting his signature ad-lib seemingly in an attempt to fight back against misogynistic comments he made about periods, while “EVIL” is another catchy pop-rock track where she sings about his toxicity rubbing off on her while they were still together. The track “NYMPHOLOGY” also appears near the end, but this one feels a little more like what the Martinez haters think her music sounds like. With a pitched-up vocal to make her sound like a taunting kid on the playground and some of her more ill-fitting lyrics seemingly selected just for shock value, it represents the worst parts of the image that she’s thankfully moving past. “WOMB” closes out the album and sees the cycle of life renew, as Martinez closes the loop with a track sung from the perspective of someone being birthed.
PORTALS ultimately reveals itself to be a fitting title to Martinez’s latest work despite the fact that it isn’t mentioned anywhere – because it truly finds her stepping into a new world while retaining some of the best things that drew fans towards her in the first place. While some of the old still lingers, for better and for worse, Martinez continues to be a fascinating and unpredictable act to watch.
Favourite Tracks: THE CONTORTIONIST, BATTLE OF THE LARYNX, SPIDER WEB, DEATH, TUNNEL VISION
Least Favourite Track: NYMPHOLOGY