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ALBUM REVIEW: 'PORTALS' BY MELANIE MARTINEZ

E WetzelMay 5, 2023

While not a rockstar in the traditional sense, Melanie Martinez has enthralled audiences with her unique style since her appearance on The Voice in 2012. Martinez is constantly pushing boundaries and highlighting controversial issues via her albums, and PORTALS is no exception. This review will cover the deluxe version of the album, released shortly after the original and including an additional three songs. PORTALS follows Martinez’s journey of self-discovery and rebirth after “killing” her alter-ego, Crybaby, whose life was chronicled in her previous albums.

The first song, “DEATH”, which was originally released as a single, is one of my personal favorites. The introduction encompasses a theme that was weaved throughout the film for Martinez’s 2019 album “K-12”: The spiritual continuation of life after death and the concept of reincarnation. This introduction is the repetition of the phrase, “Death is life, is death, is life…” in order to indicate an ellipsoidal and ceaseless pattern of the soul, in life and death. I really admire her use of a heartbeat for additional rhythms here. The song then crescendos to a chorus with another repeated lyric, “I’m back from the dead,” and a heavy use of drum machines and synthesizers. I regard Melanie Martinez as an incredible lyricist, and “DEATH" is no exception to this view. It would be impossible for me to list all my favorite lines in “DEATH” without writing the entire song.

Second on the album and also released as a single is “VOID.” Also like “DEATH,” the song begins softly and repetitively, this time the phrase, “In the void” growing exponentially faster. The raw emotion in Martinez’s voice makes “VOID” a captivating listen. A clip of this song, along with a few others from PORTALS, went viral on TikTok, predating its release:

    “Pipe down with noise, I cannot bear my sorrow

    I hate who I was before

    I fear I won’t live to see the day tomorrow

    Someone tell me if this is Hell”

Not only does this pre-chorus beautifully articulate an internal turmoil that many of us struggle with mortally, but the usage of “Hell” insinuates that the “void” is a place where the soul travels in between perceived life and death– a realm of nothingness. Such an ability to devise lyrics that the populace can relate to while maintaining artistic vision and a cohesive story is truly phenomenal. I also want to note how much I love the simultaneously gorey yet elegant imagery used in the chorus:

    “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 third song, “TUNNEL VISION,” is my second favorite song on the album. The recurring theme of a softer introduction continues with this piece’s ethereal and eerie opening, before transitioning into a beat more reminiscent of some of Martinez’s earlier work, such as “Carousel.” The lyrics of “TUNNEL VISION” also appear to mirror the themes of Martinez’s “Cake” from her debut album “Crybaby” and “Strawberry Shortcake” from “K-12.” All three songs urge her listeners to see her for more than her physicality, and to focus instead on what’s inside. “TUNNEL VISION,” however, is a direct response to the slut-shaming she faced after her “The Bakery” music video. Similarly, lyrics such as, “Playing house to distract me,” and “Thought the cherry would be better than the pie,” are both evocative and reminiscent of Martinez’s previously signature use of food and childlike symbolism. While some may criticize all of these connections as unoriginal or uninspired, as a long-time fan, I enjoy their familiarity and interrelation with her previous works. And, disregarding the allusions to her previous music (or not), I believe “TUNNEL VISION” is unapologetically well done.

Fourth is “FAERIE SOIRÉE.” Unlike the first three songs, this track starts off upbeat. Martinez’ voice is celestially layered over a number of interesting rhythms. She does an incredible job in portraying a faerie energy, which would undoubtedly translate into an amazing music video for this song. That being said, while “FAERIE SOIRÉE” is a great track, it is not one of my favorites. The piece is not as accessible to listen to from a day-to-day basis based on my personal preferences, but I can certainly picture a number of instances when I would put in on.

The fifth song on PORTALS is my absolute favorite. I constantly find myself humming the melody to “LIGHT SHOWER.” I would consider this song as one of the ballads of the album, with less harsh beats and an effortless flow. “LIGHT SHOWER” also appears to be a love song that eloquently describes a healthy relationship after healing from past trauma:

    “I’m screamin’ like a kettle on a stove

    You crank the heat up, I was cold

    My past grew mold around my heart

    And all my anger, sadness, regret disappeared, it’s madness

    I’m not used to all this water, love, it’s true”

Once again, Martinez employs similes and metaphors to describe her thoughts and intentions while representing a number of different meanings. Not only do I adore the imagery, but the phrase, “Mold around my heart,” sung in Melanie Martinez’s sweet voice particularly speaks to me and my admiration for disgustingly beautiful binary opposition. Further, at the end of the chorus, the line, “Baby, cleanse me,” along with the line in the second verse, “I was surprised to see Heaven in your eyes,” both echo the theme of the song, while connecting to the spiritual and religious allusions of the album as a whole. “LIGHT SHOWER” is also the home of my favorite lyrics of the album:

    “The tips of your teeth fit perfect in me

    You’re the shower of light I devour any day of the week”

I can’t exactly place why I love this line so much, but the way it is nearly morbidly romantic is definitely a part of it. The song’s references to eating her lover have also been speculated to be symbolic of species of female spiders which eat the males after mating, connecting it to the next song “SPIDER WEB” and the symbolism used throughout the entire album.

Martinez’s sixth song on the album is another one of my favorites: “SPIDER WEB”. I particularly enjoy the syncopation and strong beats used in the instrumental breaks after each chorus. As a dancer, I am always inspired by songs I can visualize choreography for, and this also excites me for what Martinez has planned for a possible “SPIDER WEB” music video or another movie representation of an album. As a genderfluid/non-binary person, I cannot help but point out the lyric, “I wish to not be perceived.” This sentiment is relatable to those even outside of the queer community and is beautifully woven into the album’s web of metaphors. As is speculated with “LIGHT SHOWER,” “SPIDER WEB” uses bugs and arachnids as an intricate metaphor. However, as opposed to the healthy relationship in the former, “SPIDER WEB” depicts a negative state of affairs, perhaps an abusive relationship or abuse of power. I also especially enjoy the horrific images of spiders’ feeding processes rendered in the song’s outro:

    “Big bite, they liquify the insides first

    Then wrap them tight, securing their spot in the spider web

    Up all night, bound to their addiction to it

    Lifeless eyes, they die in the pit of the spider web”

Number seven, “LEECHES,” also uses an animal metaphor. Similar to the beginning of “TUNNEL VISION,” “LEECHES” is hauntingly beautiful. The instrumentals are dramatic, creepy, and unearthly. “LEECHES” is the most unsettling track of the album, which is not a negative comment, but a fact. The song may have made me more wary of leeches, but, as a fan of the scary and obscure, I still enjoy it. “LEECHES” even incorporates a Halloween-sounding synth to elevate its chilling ambiance and insinuate the negative connotations of the metaphor. As a parasite/predator, it is obvious that a song about leeches will be melancholy at best. The lyrics allude to persons invading Martinez’s privacy or draining her energy and pushing their manipulative agenda on her. Earlier in the album, “FAERIE SOIRÉE” integrated pauses and complete silence into its rhythms. This same technique is used in “LEECHES” after the line, “Stop all your breathing,” with the instrumentals pausing and a quick breath from Martinez for dramatics. If you are a fan of horror and drama, I highly recommend this song.

The eighth track is, “BATTLE OF THE LARYNX.” The larynx is an organ that allows the passage of oxygen to the lungs, commonly known as the voice box. This song puts a spotlight on people who argue without thinking and put others (Melanie Martinez) down with their white noise talking. Martinez encourages composure and compares an eloquent form of speech with the cancel-culture mobs– who often over-exaggerate and act on false allegations– that fester on internet spaces, those of which Martinez faced herself. She touched on similar topics in her 2020 single “Fire Drill.” In the same year, the song “Field Trip” from the “After School” EP contained the lyrics,

    “I am shy, but I do speak only when I truly need

    To say some shit that hopefully

    Will reach the ears it’s supposed to be”

Which can be equated with lines in the chorus of “BATTLE OF THE LARYNX,”

    “I’ll wreck you if you chase me

    But I’ll be silent ‘til you cross the line”

Martinez highlights this characteristic of hers in order to emphasize the disrespect involved in preventing her from expressing herself or speaking her mind. This song brings up an important point, especially in the digital age. Many people are too quick to breed negativity and do not value succinct and valid arguments as much as they should. It is important to be aware of how you conduct yourself and not waste your breath or anyone else’s. The song then fades out, symbolically, with muted overlapping voices and transitions into the ninth track.

Number nine on PORTALS is “THE CONTORTIONIST.” The introduction of this song was also trending on TikTok with artistic transitions:

    “Twisted all my limbs for you

    Two of them in knots and two of them in loops”

This track is another one of my favorites. There are a number of sound effects reminiscent of “Nurse’s Office” from “K-12,” even including a sneeze: Achoo! The pre-chorus is absolutely phenomenal, with masterful lyrics and a hypnotic looping overlap of vocals. Martinez’s use of sound effects combined with the raw emotion in her voice make “THE CONTORTIONIST” one of her most theatrical pieces. If you enjoy sounds that “scratch your brain,” Martinez’s laugh in the chorus does exactly that. As her entire discography accomplishes, this song also covers serious topics such as abusive relationships and people-pleasing. She claims that she is done contorting herself to please “you.” Once again, I am a fan of the dark imagery she uses while painting the picture of a metaphorical gruesome contorted body.

“MOON CYCLE,” the tenth track, is possibly the most controversial song on the album, as Martinez depicts period sex. While I agree with many others and don’t personally see myself singing along to,

    “I said, ‘Baby boy, you know I’m on my period’ yeah

    He bit the cherry down he’s delirious”

I admire Martinez for releasing it. As she says in the song, periods are natural and happen to a large part of the population monthly. While “MOON CYCLE” is not my favorite song, I do believe that periods need to be destigmatized; They aren’t gross. Perhaps when I get more confident in my own body I will be able to scream these lyrics.

The eleventh track on PORTALS is another for female empowerment. “NYMPHOLOGY,” like the first few songs, starts softly; However, unlike the previous four songs, this piece is upbeat and fun. Despite feeling happier than other tracks, “NYMPHOLOGY” still addresses important societal issues. While a nymph is a class of inferior female divinities, a nympho is a woman with strong sexual desires and the term is often pejorative. I particularly enjoy her word play that takes on both the view that women are inferior to men and slut-shaming. I have 100% screamed the chorus:

    “It’s nymphology, not psychology

    Be the manic pixie dream girl that you fucking ought to be

    Damaged oddity bought by Sotheby’s

    Auctioned to a selfish man who thinks that he’s the prophecy”

And I urge you to as well. There is also something to be said about the empowerment in the bridge where Martinez sings:

    “Flutter my wings while I pout

    Push your penis into your mouth

    I’ll make you choke on your doubt

    Cut you off, watch you die

    Just a fairy with a knife”

I believe this segment perfectly rejects the nymph and nympho attacks. Overall, this track is a great anthem for all women and non-men.

Number twelve is “EVIL.” This song is similar to “NYMPHOLOGY” in being upbeat and angry at wrongdoers. While once again having a strong message of empowerment and being an overall catchy song, “EVIL” is not one of my favorites. Aside from Martinez’s signature sound effects, the song is quite similar to basic pop songs. There is nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t suit my tastes as much as her other music.

Unlucky number thirteen is the song “WOMB.” The riff used at the beginning of the song is reminiscent of “FAERIE SOIRÉE:” mystical and enthralling. As the title suggests, “WOMB” captures the pregnancy and birth portion of the album’s journey. A line I really like from this song is, “Conversations in the cosmos.” Not only does it encapsulate the celestial theme of the album, but I also find it poetic and fluid. As the last song in the original release of the album, “WOMB” ends with “Life is death, is life, is death, is life, is…” Beginning with “life” instead of “death” as “DEATH” did, shows that we are ending at a different point than we started, and yet the journey is still circular. I couldn’t think of a better way for Martinez to end the album… except for with more songs.

The first Deluxe song and fourteenth track overall is “POWDER.” Powder appears to be a euphemism for cocaine. This is possibly the darkest topic covered on PORTALS, as Martinez describes a person who is harming themself, crying out for help, but who is not accepting it when offered. When a loved one is struggling in such a way, it is not only our moral obligation to help, but it hurts us to see them in pain. If they neglect the help they are offered and are harming us in the process, we have no choice but to let them help themselves, a reality Martinez understands too well. While I empathize and relate to the topic of the song, from a musical standpoint, it is not my favorite. Martinez is no stranger to heavy autotune and pitch-changing, but, in my opinion, this song could have done without it.

“PLUTO” is the fifteenth song on PORTALS, and another depressing track. The song features an off-putting waltz tempo and seemingly focuses on Martinez’s journey before reinventing and rebirthing herself. The last song on “K-12,” “Recess,” is also in ¾ time and acted as a climax for the movie’s story. In the “K-12” film, the song is played while the protagonists are trapped to dance forever. Symbolically, this can represent a situation where their life cycle has been interrupted and they are literally unable to move on. It will be interesting to see what Martinez does in a potential PORTALS movie with this parallel, possibly focusing more heavily on continuation while alluding to the repetitive nature of life and death. Lyrically, “PLUTO” is another one of my favorites. In the first verse, Martinez claims:

    “I’m hauling an outdated shell

    Help let me go

    These walls around me are so close

    Cavin’ in, oh no”

In these lyrics, she cannot recognize herself and feels suffocated by the person she used to be, but is simultaneously afraid of the repercussions of changing. Still, Martinez later says that it is “finally time” to change. In theme with the rest of the album, “PLUTO” includes mentions of demons and Hell. Similarly, the chorus appears to be a prayer, begging Pluto, the Roman God of the underworld, for her rebirth to begin. While morbid, I love it:

    “Pluto, destroy me

    Kill me off slowly

    I’ll bathe in my ashes

    Rise like a phoenix

    Show me who I am becoming”

After the second chorus, the beat drops into a gorgeously painful representation of Martinez’s internal struggle. The heavy use of drum machines in this section is the part of the album most akin to the rock genre and effortlessly woven into the song.

The sixteenth and final track on the Deluxe version of PORTALS is “MILK OF THE SIREN.” As the title suggests, Martinez once again weaves spirituality, religion, and mythology into her music, this time in the form of Greek sirens. Similar to “NYMPHOLOGY,” and tales of sirens, the track depicts female empowerment. “MILK OF THE SIREN” is another lyrically beautiful song. The majority of the track is a slower tempo, with sudden bursts of loud instrumentals. Unlike my opinion on “PLUTO,” when Martinez does this for the first time before the first verse, I am not a fan. I don’t see the necessity to put a beat drop there. That being said, she uses the same syntax after each following chorus along with the repetition of “Let them drown.” Here her intention is better realized, which I both appreciate and find extremely powerful. The synthesizers she uses in this part are very reminiscent of Labrinth's Euphoria soundtrack, so if you are a fan of his, “MILK OF THE SIREN” will be a good listen.

Overall, I really relished the release of PORTALS. The album sparked controversy amongst Melanie Martinez fans because of how far it deviated from her previous work. There is an apparent jump in both Martinez’s sound and aesthetic between “Crybaby” and “K-12,” but it was not as drastic as her change to PORTALS. Especially after hearing songs like “PLUTO,” I am proud of Martinez for retiring her Crybaby character and evolving as an artist. Still, I empathize with the general dislike towards her overwhelming use of autotune, as I adore Martinez’s unique and raspy voice. I genuinely enjoy the entire album and suggest that you give it a listen. There are so many amazing tracks that it would be nearly impossible for me to rank them, but I tried my best below if you are interested. As a fan since 2015, I am clearly not impartial, but I truly believe that Martinez is an amazing artist. Melanie Martinez is starting her PORTALS tour soon, and I will write a review of the concert I see!

PORTALS RANKINGS

  1. LIGHT SHOWER
  2. TUNNEL VISION
  3. PLUTO
  4. SPIDER WEB
  5. NYMPHOLOGY
  6. DEATH
  7. THE CONTORTIONIST
  8. LEECHES
  9. MILK OF THE SIREN
  10. WOMB
  11. VOID
  12. BATTLE OF THE LARYNX
  13. FAERIE SOIRÉE
  14. POWDER
  15. MOON CYCLE
  16. EVIL

Catch Melanie Martinez on tour https://www.melaniemartinezmusic.com/tour