Optimism against the odds: That’s been Marnie Stern’s attitude from the beginning. Optimism that, out of the approximate 3,543 notes per song she might attempt, guitar-wise, she’d manage to hit at least 3,000. Optimism like she voices on “Ruler,” from 2008 sophomore album This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That: “We will get out alive, this much I know.” Optimism like naming a record This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That.
Her third record, 2010’s Marnie Stern, signaled its relative downheartedness with a mirror-gazing title and not one but two songs about a deceased ex-lover: “You will always be here! And here! And hear!” she sang on “Cinco De Mayo.” So, in a way even that showed her optimism, the way she said goodbye to the guy, by keeping him around. More of a bummer was the love-song closer, “The Things You Notice,” on which Stern vowed, “I’m not! I’m not! I’m not gonna let him go!” and then did, right after the record came out.
It’s important to remember that we know all this stuff because she told us, and that her confessional streak extends from full-bodied on-album wails to blunt self-castigating lyrics to rambling, expansive interviews in which she touches on everything from her present job selling plus-sized women’s clothing on eBay to her disdain for the cat-oriented discography of Best Coast. There’s a generosity to what she does — a willingness to share, a willingness to fail.
That willingness to fail is in fact what her newest record, The Chronicles of Marnia, is supposed to be about, in an advance-publicity kind of way. “This one’s more about creativity,” Stern told Pitchfork recently. “There’s this feeling I’ve had where I’m trying to pull creativity out of myself, where I love to do music so much, but the connections I make with it are not as strong as the ones I made when I was young.” She’s 36 and still sleeping on floors; she’s been doing this long enough to know she’s never gonna make any money at it. Age makes the wild emotional swings that have been Stern’s on-record signature harder to come by. So Marnia is about that too: coming to terms with the person you are, rather than the person you might want to be, or once were. “You don’t need a sledgehammer to walk in my shoes,” she sings. “But nothing is easy.”
Still, the self-exhortations remain. “Got to make it great / On a mission,” she sings on opener “Year of the Glad” (the title is a reference to a book she admits, with characteristic honesty, that she hasn’t read). Her longtime musical partner, drummer Zach Hill, was too busy trolling Epic Records to record with her this time, so Stern conscripted Oneida’s Kid Millions instead, and he suits her, maybe better than Hill ever did. He’s more powerful, more direct; his drumming shows off her muscles. Songs like “You Don’t Turn Down” sound growly and straight-up tough — she’s always been a virtuoso, but part of the suspense with her old songs was whether or not they’d fall apart before she finished them. You could knock a door down with these.
As befits a record about trying to find a grown up way to make art, Marnia begins with Stern echolocating like a dolphin: e e e. Maturity, in her world, means never having to apologize for sounding like a zoo full of anxious monkeys. It means fits of irrational enthusiasm — “Immortals don’t die!” she yells, like she’s sure she’s one of them — and equally irrational self-doubt. “I am nothing / I am no one,” she sings on “Proof of Life,” the piano-laden emotional nadir, the one where Stern questions her own effort, energy, and inspiration, only to turn around and defiantly declare, on a song called “Hell Yes,” that “All I’ve got is time.” Both things are true, of course. Like she says, “The work is never done. And that is all I have.”
She’s always been skilled with an exclamation point; now she’s mastering the question mark, too. “What took you so long?” Stern asks herself on “You Don’t Turn Down.” And then there’s the chorus of “Noonan”: “Don’t you want to be somebody?” (No detectable yard signs references, alas.) The tension between the clean beauty of Stern’s playing and her lack of faith in that playing has never been greater, or more compelling. There’s something exhilarating in listening to her think out loud — the sureness of her songwriting battling the part of her brain that knows the song will never be enough. On the breathy, expansive “East Side Glory,” she lays it out bluntly — “The plan was to do this forever / Can I still?” — only to correct herself in the next breath: “Too much hesitation / Just go out and make it.” The work is its own answer.