Melanie Martinez is ready to put Cry Baby to bed. The character, who has its own ‘universe‘ (The Melanie Martinez Crybaby Universe? MMCU?), confronts death and more on Martinez’s latest album, PORTALS.
From its high art conceptual character design featuring Martinez as an otherworldly faerie, to its long track runtimes that are often interspersed with interludes and cutaways, PORTALS is an interesting shift for Martinez, but one that feels as oddly authentic as the singer herself.
Throughout PORTALS, Martinez experiments and plays around with genres, to different degrees of success, and the album is as enjoyable as it is ambitious.
The album opens with ‘DEATH,’ a track that truly sets the scene for this chapter of the MMCU — ethereal, woodsy, and dark. ‘DEATH’ is an introspective track, reflecting on life, death, and the concept of rebirth and purgatory.
‘DEATH’ does a great job of succinctly encapsulating PORTALS and the album’s concept — so those who don’t mesh with the track probably won’t enjoy the album, either. ‘DEATH’ takes subject matter not often heard in pop music and shoves it to the forefront, unabashedly strange and proudly weird in its execution and refusal to follow any formulas.
In this regard, PORTALS and ‘DEATH’ feel like they take a page from the book of Björk, but Martinez is careful to keep things a respectful homage than a cheap copy; the album often veers into Björk levels of art-pop experimentation, but there’s always something added to bring things squarely back into Martinez’s signature, pop realm — like the upbeat macabre chorus of ‘DEATH.’
‘DEATH’ ends with a twelve second outro of running sounds and panting that segues to ‘VOID,’ a pop/rock track that adds of elements of punk resemblance of a Hey Violet track. Martinez’s strong lyricism is a highlight of ‘VOID’, with storytelling lyrics bringing the listener into Crybaby’s after-death experiences.
“Like a priest behind confession walls, I judge myself/ Kneeling on a metal grater. / Bloody like a body that has died and it’s myself, tangled in my own intestines.” The song, written and produced solely by Martinez, shows her strengths and many talents with ease.
Martinez gets bolder yet with her lyrics on ‘TUNNEL VISION’, a track that sets itself solely in the pop field, feeling less experimental than the rest of PORTALS, but a still enjoyable respite from the oddities on the rest of the tracklist. “They always hustle for the pussy so they’ll never get it. I make them tumble down the hill they climbed, I don’t regret it,” Martinez delivers with an almost rap-like precision and cutthroat-ness.
While ‘TUNNEL VISION’ starts out as a radio-friendly pop track, it seemingly ends at 3:45, transitioning into a woodsy, chanting outro that sets up the next song, ‘FAERIE SOIRÉE.’ As experimental and insane as PORTALS feels at times, Martinez expertly cuts and transitions tracks with the forté of an artist that enjoys mainstream success — ‘TUNNEL VISION’ begins its experimentation, for example, at a place in the track that it would be all too easy for radios to trim the track down to a more palatable runtime for listeners.
‘FAERIE SOIREÉ’, one of the album’s shortest tracks, is another alt-pop dreamy track that feels like a hallucinatory trip, albeit a brief one. Unfortunately, the track lyrically shines its brightest on the spoken outro: “I keep leaning to dying in all of my dreams/Gather me, all of we, everyone/I’ve been the boys and the girls/And everyone in between.” The track itself is quaint and enjoyable, but one that feels seemingly rushed compared to PORTALS’ stronger entries.
One of those stronger entries comes next with ‘LIGHT SHOWER,’ a rare love song from Martinez that is a wonderfully irreverent take on the romantic genre. Sticking to PORTALS’ theme of nature, rebirth and rejuvenation, ‘LIGHT SHOWER’ is a beautifully poignant love song about finding someone who complements your existence and that you crave insatiably.
‘LIGHT SHOWER’ takes a straightforward approach to its lyrics — at least at first, until Martinez leans into the album’s themes with full blast, professing her love as a plant, ready to devour sunlight for its sustenance: “You, make mе want to…Plan out my last days on earth…eating you.”
When these lyrics first hit the ear, they sound so strange and bizarre, but once they sink in and there is time for reflection, they are probably one of Martinez’s most romantic and oddly endearing lyrics to date.
As one can expect from Martinez, the pure romanticism will not last long, and things get back to the eerie with ‘SPIDER WEB’, a delightfully wicked track about a spider watching its prey as the insects become one with the spider’s web. The track is cruelly short, but makes the most of its ~3:00 runtime.
Martinez confronts fame and the pitfalls that come with it on ‘LEECHES,’ a song about predatory friends doing whatever it takes to leech fame wherever they can find it. ‘LEECHES’ is one of the most cinematic tracks on PORTALS in its production, sweeping and grand. Nonetheless, the track feels a bit hollow and shallow — as is often the case in songs written by famous people about how hard it is being famous.
Luckily, the detour PORTALS takes into exploring the pitfalls of fame isn’t a long one, and the album course corrects itself quickly, with ‘BATTLE OF THE LARYNX’ getting back on track. A wickedly hilarious story of Martinez haunting a selfish ex-lover, ‘BATTLE OF THE LARYNX’ expertly showcases two different styles of conflict: those who yell and scream about their problems, versus those who turn inward and lean on wit and rationalizations.
‘BATTLE OF THE LARYNX’ feels the most pop-rock of PORTALS in its production and instrumental, and even its biting lyrics lean into rock as Martinez describes “round and dull” teeth and proclaiming “I’ll wreck you if you chase me/ But I’ll be silent ’til you cross the line.”
Though Martinez was willing to bite her tongue and win arguments with a sharp tongue and mental acuity on ‘BATTLE OF THE LARYNX’, she finds herself bending over backwards — literally — to try and please a lover on ‘THE CONTORTIONIST.’
‘THE CONTORTIONIST’ expertly describes the feeling of a suffocating and painful relationship, with Martinez likening beautiful ribbons to a noose, and comparing the feelings of being loved with crushing bones.
With its clever lyrics and playful production, ‘THE CONTORTIONIST’ harkens back to Martinez’s earlier work, though the track also boasts some of her sharpest lyrics to date. “Caught you like the cold or a flu/Praying that I’ll someday be immune./ Got me like a bad tattoo/ Always under skin, even when it gets removed.”
Martinez continues to show the absurdity of those who dare cross her on ‘MOON CYCLE,’ a track that feels like it would dominate a modern day Lilith Fair. On ‘MOON CYCLE,’ Martinez contemplates the power that comes with her period, and how she has to deal with the stupidity of being in relationships with a man who will never know what she’s going through.
One of these lyrics even seems to call out Martinez’s ex, Oliver Tree, admonishing one of his more misogynistic lyrics regarding women on their periods.
“I could win a fight on my period/Matter of fact, right now, I could build a pyramid/ You messin’ with my cycle, that is dangerous” seem like a direct response to Tree’s song ‘revival’ and its lyrics: “Stacking shit, like each brick on my pyramid/ I’m angry and bloody like a bitch on her period.” Checkmate, Melanie.
‘NYMPHOLOGY’ sees Martinez also harken back to her previous works, with a bratty track that explores the way femme-presenting people are viewed in today’s patriarchal society. It’s clever for Martinez to utilize nymph imagery here, and it feels very in theme with PORTALS while the songwriting and production are very much at home with her debut Cry Baby.
With that said, the lyrics on ‘NYMPHOLOGY’ feel a bit bare bones compared to some of the more introspective and exploratory parts of PORTALS, and that leaves the track feeling a bit hollow in comparison. Still, though, the track is enjoyable, despite its flaws.
One of the biggest detractors of ‘NYMPHOLOGY’ has to be its excessively long interlude at the song’s end, a years old shelved song that has been trimmed and tacked onto the end here seemingly without rhyme or reason.
Speaking to Apple Music, Martinez revealed that the last note of ‘NYMPHOLOGY’ lined up with the first note of the interlude’s original track, but it still feels like too much of a dissonance both lyrically and sonically. Some demo songs just don’t need to see the light of day until they’re ready and perfected, and that’s perfectly fine.
PORTALS then transitions over to ‘EVIL,’ another song that explores being in a toxic relationship. ‘EVIL’ is delightfully alt-rock, featuring a proud Martinez reveling in being called evil by her old partner, with her newfound clarity reminding her of the power that she holds and that she doesn’t have to be gaslit any longer.
‘EVIL’ is one of PORTAL‘s strongest, which is saying something. It feels very different from her past works, and Martinez’s authenticity and rawness on the track make the music even more enjoyable. There’s no veneer or hiding behind a character here, and ‘EVIL’ is all the better for it.
PORTALS wraps up with ‘WOMB’, a track that showcases Martinez’s careful thought processes behind this album and its themes. As PORTALS opens with ‘DEATH,’ it ends with ‘WOMB,’ a seemingly inverted commentary on life and death. The album begins in death, and ends with life anew.
As a track, ‘WOMB,’ is upbeat and optimistic in its message of confronting feelings of fear and apprehension in blossoming and coming to life. It brings the PORTALS experience to a close, recalling ‘DEATH’s intro on ‘WOMB’s outro — ‘Life is death is life is death is life is…’
For an album that has such a clear vision and execution as PORTALS, it’s a shame that the deluxe version of the album ignores the storytelling and instead tacks three songs onto the end of the tracklist, rather than ensuring they fit into the album’s narrative structure.
PORTALS was created to end with ‘WOMB,’ and the addition of ‘POWDER,’ ‘PLUTO’ and ‘MILK OF THE SIREN’ after the intended ending messes with the album’s storytelling prowess. Granted, most ‘Deluxe’ editions of albums these days feel more like a cash grab by the labels rather than a true album repackaging meant to enhance and further the story being told, and the deluxe edition of PORTALS is sadly not an exception.
As for the tracks themselves, there’s also a disconnect from the rest of PORTALS, which isn’t too surprising considering the the three songs seem only tangentially connected to the album’s themes or message.
‘POWDER’ hits PORTALS‘s message of toxic relationships and the pain of enduring them, a robotic track about cocaine addiction that is void of any of the nature-inspired warmth of the rest of PORTALS.
‘PLUTO’ feels an appropriate addition with its Greek mythology imagery of phoenixes and rising from ashes into rebirth, but its lyrics seem to only brush the surface level.
‘MILK OF THE SIREN’ continues the mythological imagery present throughout PORTALS, and is the strongest of the bonus tracks, although it’s worth noting its a remastering of a 2021 leaked song of Martinez’s, so one that was not likely created with the PORTALS concept in mind, although a great addition for fans who have likely been clamoring for a high quality master of the demo.
Overall, PORTALS is a strong and experimental album from Martinez, showing growth and change as an artist. The album’s high concept and desire to blossom organically leaves PORTALS with an interesting sound that will take listeners on a journey. PORTALS isn’t quite perfection, but its ambition is admirable and its flaws are few.
With how much love and effort have been put into this concept by Martinez, hopefully one day the tracklisting for PORTALS will get the love it deserves — which means carefully expanding the album beyond its standard tracklisting and adding bonus tracks that enhance the story, rather than tacking new(old) songs to the end in an effort to get fans to buy it all over again. The level of artistry and thought behind each track of the standard edition of PORTALS is commendable, and the album deserves that same treatment on its deluxe edition.
PORTALS is available everywhere now.