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Music Marina, Solange, and the artistic benefits of R&R

Apr. 17, 2019
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Temperatures were below freezing in my city on the 8th of February, but Marina Diamandis somehow made me forget to hate winter that day. 

About a week after a Dazed profile warned us of new music, Marina released “Handmade Heaven,” the first single from her new album Love + Fear. (The two emotions make up the two parts of the project: Love was released in full at the beginning of this month; Fear is expected at the end of it.) In the Sophie Muller-directed video, Marina peacefully glides through the snow in a red coat and gloves, the lyrics and visuals exuding admiration for the natural world. 

I almost missed the song/video release. Not because I’m not a fan—I once painted a heart on my cheek in eyeliner to go and see Marina’s Lonely Hearts Club Tour—but because I’ve been relatively offline in 2019. It was less a voluntary New Year’s resolution than an emergency burnout fix: at Christmastime, my brain felt broken from mindlessly scrolling through social media for much of 2018, and my physical well-being had been a mere afterthought for weeks—risky, even irresponsible behavior given that I’m chronically ill. 

At risk of sounding dramatic, by the time Marina released “Handmade Heaven” a month or so later I was a different person. I’d started doing actual things with the hours I once spent angry on Twitter, and had started rescheduling plans and deadlines if that’s what my body or mind seemed to need. I was sleeping soundly, listening to people when they spoke to me, and—not surprisingly—doing better creative work. In a comment that Marina pinned below the video, she wrote, “In some ways we live in a very unnatural world—our brains are constantly trying to adjust and adapt to a lot of social and technological change—and I think that can cause a lot of suffering.” I’d say I felt called out, but it’s more accurate to say that I felt seen.     

A few years ago, Marina lost two relatives while touring for her third studio album, Froot, but kept that a secret from fans: “I didn’t want to spoil the illusion for people coming to see you, who’ve paid for a ticket and waited outside.” But as she told Vogue earlier this month, there was more going on. “I definitely felt very depressed and didn’t understand why life was good,” she admitted. When her Neon Nature Tour came to an end in March of 2016, she got experimental, the goal being to get reacquainted with both art and herself. There was a blogging stint; she also tried therapy, yoga, enrolling in a psychology course and a life-drawing class, and setting social-media boundaries in the name of self-preservation. In 2018, she announced that she was dropping “and the Diamonds” from her professional name. The move suggested that she’d excised some dead weight during her time off, if only symbolically.    

It’s also a branding change, debuting Marina as someone identifiable by her first name alone. It aligns her somehow with all the other mononymed women in pop, but perhaps there’s one with whom she’s especially united these days: Solange is a similarly private artist who also returned to music this year after a break from it. When I Get Home, her fourth studio album, was released in early March alongside a 33-minute film of the same name. Combining choreographed sequences, found and personal footage, and even animation, it meditates overtly on certain things—her hometown of Houston, Texas; blackness and black womanhood more specifically—but doesn’t spoon-feed us the messages themselves. Like Love + Fear, it seems to have been made primarily for the artist, with fans welcome to tag along. 

Several tracks on When I Get Home are earworms, even if they weren’t necessarily engineered to be, and yet the one I’ve come back to more than any other is “Binz.” It arrives in the last ten minutes of the film and merges footage of Solange performing for her MacBook camera at different points in time. Completely alone save for one shot, she lights candles and dances to the song in a variety of outfits, seemingly happy to be existing—and thriving—in her body.   

That last part is significant given the many forces working against Solange as a black woman, but also because When I Get Home is the product of more than a year of bodily rest—the first part of which was medically mandated. In December of 2017, she abruptly pulled out of headlining Afropunk Festival Johannesburg to treat an unspecified autonomic nerve disorder. “[M]y doctors are not clearing me for such an extended lengthy flight, and doing a rigorous show right after,” she wrote on Instagram. She then returned to Houston, which became a site of recovery as much as artistic inspiration. This aspect of When I Get Home’s story has taken somewhat of a backseat in writing about the album and film, but it colors the entirety of both for me as someone whose health isn’t always up for my ambition. 

Solange’s album and what we’ve seen and heard of Marina’s so far are enormously different works of art, both visually and musically. But the two women share interesting similarities, from their albums’ focuses on home and what being there can do for the soul (see: “Orange Trees” or pretty much any of When I Get Home), to the hiatuses they both took for their health, to the fact that both seem more content than ever. Their breaks may have been precipitated by forces out of their control, but they’ve used them to self-actualize; to rid themselves of things that weren’t working and come even more into their own as artists. There’s a tranquility to both women that we haven’t yet seen: their new art isn’t the kind that makes you want to do your makeup and go out with friends; it’s the kind that makes you want to cancel your plans, drink a bunch of water, and take out the trash—whether literally or figuratively. 

But although both albums are soothing, neither is naïve enough to suggest that life is worry-free. On “To Be Human,” Marina sings, “There were riots in America / Just when things were getting better.” When I Get Home isn’t Solange’s first Trump-era album, which frees it from any obligation to be wholly and explicitly concerned with politics. But that hasn’t made it apolitical: one of its most indelible lyrics comes during “Almeda” when she sings, “Black faith still can’t be washed away / Not even in that Florida water.” Both albums seem to promote optimism and love as an A-side to uncertainty or fear’s B-side, even if only Marina’s was designed that way. 

Putting yourself first can sometimes mean disappointing others. There was a mixed reaction to the announcement of Marina’s name change. “She dropped her fans,” wrote one person on Reddit, rather dramatically. Many have described Solange’s When I Get Home as “challenging” for its use of repetition and somewhat enigmatic lyrics; it may have even disappointed the odd fan who expected a sequel to 2016’s A Seat at the Table. But maybe these artists’ perceived selfishness is actually a good thing: Both are practically glowing, like they’ve been revived by their R&R periods and incentivized to continue making artistic decisions for themselves. These are crucial reminders to creators that rest is not only important but conducive to good art.