On Marnie Stern’s fourth album, her guitar playing is as grand as her self-doubt. Yet The Chronicles of Marnia is Stern’s most buoyant work, complete with a mission statement that bucks her precious trend: “Immortals don’t die.”
At 37, the Upper East Side guitar virtuoso is in her ‘not a girl, not yet a veteran of the alt-rock sphere’ stage. Flanked by a new producer with a flair for minimalism, Nicolas Vernhes (Wild Nothing, LIGHTS) and drummer Kid Millions of Oneida, Stern peeled off the layers that cushioned her previous works, like 2010’s Marnie Stern. That album juxtaposed euphoria with tragedy, notably her ex-boyfriend’s suicide (“For Ash”). Chronicles, the follow-up, develops that contrast of musical highs and lyrical lows. But this time, her tragedy is her own creativity.
The album kicks off with “The Year of the Glad”, an effervescent celebration of something. Vowel sounds! David Foster Wallace! Anything! Depending on your personal philosophy, the title is either the first line or the last line of Infinite Jest, a book so long and challenging it’s regarded as an accomplishment just to own it (Stern admitted she didn’t get past page three).
“Glad” is joyous and emphatic: what Muse might sound like if they inhaled a tank of helium gas. But the best part of a song that declares “Everything starts now” is that Stern feels as though everything could end at any moment. Or worse, that she’s already lost everything and what the hell is she even doing here? Stern is Morrissey’s “This Charming Man” come to life: playful, lilting, and hilariously hermetic.
From the freewheeling “Noonan” to the manic-as-Kathleen-Hanna “You Don’t Turn Down”, Stern plays dangerously fast over her sky-high quiver. Her finger-tapping technique, where both hands are placed on the fret board, allows her to reach those Paganini-speeds (the 19th century violinist was one of the original finger-tappers long before Eddie Van Halen.)
Playing fast used to suggest you made some Faustian pact: you partook in lascivious affairs, you owned a Corvette. But Stern conflates velocity with the sexy topics of work (“work is never done”), working (“I’m working so damn hard”), and metaphors for working (“Don’t need a sledgehammer to walk in my shoes”). In the ’70s, AC/DC sold the dream of rock n’ roll as work to millions: “Under-paid, gettin’ sold, second-hand / That’s how it goes playin’ in a band.” According to the Bon Scott School Of Thought, those who rocked hard received something called a ‘soul stripper.’
Stern’s soul sounds stripped. Her theory of work is less linear, more like C.S. Lewis’ labyrinthine wardrobe, with inner lions and witches to battle (though she may be looking to switch to the Bon Scott School based on her “Win A Date With Marnie Stern” Twitter contest).
Vulnerability has many surprising tones on this album, like the rambunctious repetition of “I’m losing my body” to Stern’s nasal siren noises that signal an emergency of her own design. When she softly intimates “I am nothing / I am no one” on “Proof of Life”, it’s a chilling manifesto coming from the empowering stage presence, worthy of all those “Thunderstruck”-style guitar highs, like the one on “Nothing is Easy”.
Mostly, Stern worries whether her unorthodox life trajectory has weathered her mind and body in vain. However, her diffidence may be rooted in the restlessness of advancing her career — and feeling the weight of the possibilities. Resolve comes to her on “Hell Yes”, the closing track and, which fittingly features a stark guitar solo. It recalls the exaltation of “The Year of the Glad”, finding the Wallace-style loop of living in the joy of limitless limitation.
Chin up, Marnie. As Van Halen once foretold: Only time will tell if we stand the test of time.