When thinking about The Chronicles of Marnia, the deliciously named fourth album from Marnie Stern, one line keeps coming back up as a codebreaker: “All the life is based on fantasy/ and all the gods have stopped talking to me.” As the most mature of albums in Stern’s catalog, Marnia navigates its creators darkest doubts and feelings of self-isolation, with a grace that rivals her fingers as they glide through every guitar riff and solo in a 10 track labyrinth. That line is perhaps Stern’s realization that being alone doesn’t need to mean the end; the gods may have stopped talking to her, but her life continues. It’s the “Proof of Life” from the title, and it’s a proof that Stern, a lifer on the road who has given her everything to music, is one of our national treasures.
Of course, nothing comes easy for her, as she’s constantly battling her urge to be confessional with her frankly astonishing guitar playing. “Nothing Is Easy” indeed, and that track starts with a blazing riff and Stern’s yelp of “there are no coincidences!” It’s similarly not a coincidence that the track battles its own inertia to deliver it’s titular message; while a defeatist (or realist, perhaps) point of view, it’s clear that Stern is fighting against everything that is, well, hard. Helping along the way is new drummer Kid Millions, who replaces Death Grips madman Zach Hill (a veteran of Stern’s previous three albums). His drumming sounds more direct and powerful; it’s got snares where before there were bass kicks, and it allows Stern’s guitar playing to come through cleaner than before.
There’s no doubt that Marnie Stern is first and foremost a guitar goddess; Marnia introduces a new trick up her sleeve by allowing her guitar playing to move in and out of the mix. This has to do partly with Stern’s use of a producer (Nicholas Vernhes) for the first time in her career. When speaking to The Quietus, she stated that it was due to wanting to hear no, something that never happened when working with Hill alone: “On my first or second record, even if I was completely dissatisfied I would have gone along with things, just because that is my nature. As it was my fourth, I argued with everybody in there.” Does this change work? Hell yes. The strings swerve and bend throughout, melding with her voice at times before taking center stage in solos that still rival anything coming out of the ‘indie’ world. It’s frankly less distracting when her riffs are working with the song, as opposed to waiting for their chance to explode into existence. “The Chronicles of Marnia” does a good job of maintaining this balance, particularly when Stern’s voice cuts out and the guitar begins soaring. This is where the drumming works its magic again, as they escalate with snare/cymbal rides to match the soaring triplet of notes being put out my Stern’s six-string.
Really, though, the reason Marnia succeeds is its attention to its creator’s vision. This feels like a personal album on steroids, a journal written in all caps. When the aforementioned “Proof of Life” brings the proceedings down, it’s a rare understated moment that affects precisely because everything around it is a chaos of self-discovery. It’s the darkest point on the album, as she admits that she’s ‘been running out of energy,” yet she continues searching for the answer. When she moves onto the uplifting finale (appropriately titled “Hell Yes”), it’s a clean break; a soaring guitar yet again introduces the song, leaving the melancholia back on a previous track, a previous life. It’s the ending of the war inside of Marnia and inside of Marnie; hope wins out, no matter how much self-doubt fought.