The strongest part of Melanie Martinez's new album Cry Baby is its theme. You only have to look at the track list and see song titles like "Dollhouse", "Tag, you're it", "Mrs. Potato Head", or "Cry Baby", just to name a few, to know that the album is going to feel like a broken-down music box, one of the ones with a ballerina balanced on a toe inside. And you wouldn't be wrong. But from the song titles, you couldn't guess the raw, uneasy power of this album. Cleanly, cleverly produced and riddled with trappy high-hats and drops, Martinez illustrates the dark, ugly flip-side to femininity, the pain found at the very roots of girlhood.
The former The Voice contestant wastes no time in the album, hurtling straight into "Cry Baby", an eerie dance number, then to "Dollhouse", a song released early last year with a creepy-Barbie video to go with it. In "Dollhouse", Martinez sings a lament of a broken family - a cheating father, an alcoholic mother, and of course their helpless children. Throughout the album, she tackles seemingly every issue that would haunt a young woman: not only familial issues, but self-esteem, love, and a thousand different kinds of heartbreak.
The album continues to toe the line of kitschy - sometimes dipping into creepy musical cliches like the creepy carnival music that sometimes drops into "Carousel", a particularly broody track - but the kitschiness never overpowers the music. "Carousel" uses the tinkling effects and horns to create a mood, but the real focus is Martinez's fuzzy, whispery voice and the minimalistic, throbbing bass. "Alphabet Boy", in the same vein, is backed with chiming noises you might find issuing from some play-keyboard at your local Toys R Us, but with a trap-influenced beat rattling away under the chorus and Martinez's dismissive words ("I say fuck your degree, alphabet boy/You think you're smarter than me with all your bad poetry"), the song just avoids being corny - and, in this close encounter, becomes creepy and undeniably cool.
As one might suspect, Martinez uses extremely adult topics to juxtapose the girlishness of her voice and her song titles. In "Training Wheels", a relatively quiet song that tinkles like a Christmas carol, Martinez sings, "I love everything you do/When you call me fucking dumb for the stupid shit I do". The song is probably the closest thing to a love song on the album, yet even the love Martinez sings about is clearly more complicated than that found in the usual pop love song, something a little darker.
Cry Baby finds another high point in "Pacify Her", which tells a story of being the other woman in denial about her lover's girlfriend. "Pacify her/She's getting on my nerves/You don't love her/Stop lying with those words," Martinez half-shouts, half-gasps, her rage and desperation tangible. If she shows her ability convey a character and a narrative in "Pacify Her", in "Mrs. Potato Head" she proves her writing ability. Sure, the song title had me skeptical, but its comments on the standards of beauty for women and the dangerous lengths many girls go to achieve the idea of the beauty wiped the smirk right off my face. "It's such a waste/When little girls grow into their mother's face/But little girls are learning how to cut and paste/And pucker up their list until they suffocate," Martinez sings. While you may or may not agree with her apparent views on plastic surgery, the use of wordplay and imagery cements her, at least in my mind, as a writer to be reckoned with, along with the other people she wrote this album with. And if she continues to create such fascinating, weird music with such amazing producers, I think she will solidify herself as an indie-pop icon.