Dylan Wallace

Melanie Martinez “Portals” – Breaking Down the Space Between Death and Life

Music Scene Media
Mar 31, 2023
8 min read

Melanie Martinez’s career can be segmented by the self-portrayed character of “Crybaby” that has previously strung listeners through carefully crafted music videos and feature films with hyper stylized nostalgic themes. The story of her 2015 album of the same name, Crybaby, introduced her muse to audiences across the internet. The topical themes of infidelity, emotional suppression, substance abuse, and societal pressures all while being forced to maintain an exterior of perfection were echoed throughout the album and began cultivating a cult following that would stick with the artist throughout all her projects.

Her sophomore record entitled K-12, released in 2019, would again follow Crybaby as she left her home and was swallowed up and spit out by the most brutal environment this world has to offer…the American School System. In a literal sense, the tracks critique the sexualization of young women, lack of punishment for dangerous attitudes in young men, and nonexistence of proper sexual education in schooling, while on a broader scale, using this environment as a façade for the United States and power systems critiquing both our principals and presidents. In the ending of the accompanying self-directed feature film by the same name, the character of Crybaby is last seen deciding whether or not to continue life as she is, or accompanying the angel Lilith through a portal into a spiritual realm. This is where many fans feared Crybaby’s story would end, and in a way, it did.

Portals was announced with a viral video back in February with the stunning visual of a mushroom, baring the carved words of “RIP CRYBABY” on its stalk, confirming the death of her alter-ego. Sort of. Lyrics from the track DEATH would prolong her life explaining, “My body has died but I’m still alive.” Portals serves as the closing of Crybaby’s trilogy, detailing a “through line story from death to birth” as the singer has described it herself. Inspired by past life regression therapy and the voids in between life and death as recalled by patients under hypnosis, Martinez gives her Crybaby character a rebirth in the form of a new pink-skinned nymph-like body that beautifully illustrates the fragility of the temporary structures we inhabit while alive. If you think that’s existential, just wait.

Beginning with the departure of both Crybaby’s physical form and the usual sound that accompanies her, Martinez takes on a newer style. Likening it to her most previous release of the After School EP of 2020, the singer shifts into an experimental pop-rock, even collaborating with Nine Inch Nails drummer, Ilan Rubin, on multiple tracks. The second track, VOID, is the first that the singer has ever fully produced on her own, and is a real standout from the rest of the album. The track takes the listener to a void between life and death where one is forced to reflect on their past life lived, with the harshest critic there is, themselves. Martinez even talks about her hatred of her past self, “like a priest behind confession walls, I judge myself, kneeling on a metal grater.” As I understand it, the void is a deep dark place that forces you to work through all the things you’ve suppressed in a lifetime in order to cleanse and prepare for a rebirth.

The album continues its twisted path through TUNNEL VISION. Written in a spiritual corner of Hawaii surrounded by coqui frogs and under the tapping of rain, Martinez illustrates the personification of nature around her, birthing the nymph of Crybaby. The song was actually leaked by a hacker back in 2021 but was so important to the album’s overall concept, the singer just couldn’t depart with it like they had most of the other drafts leaked in that same attack. Pushing through the tunnel of vague memories of life, we arrive at FAERIE SOIRÉE, connecting us to Fae (fairy) guides that guide us along the path of rediscovery over a poppy beat accompanied by Martinez’s dreamy vocals echoed by distorted backing vocals. The last minute of the song leaves the listener only with those ethereal vocals and harmonized electronic matchings that transport them to the album’s next location.

LIGHT SHOWER was the first song written for Portals back in 2020. It depicts a place described by life regression patients as a place where light showers you and cleanses the negativity of your past life. Martinez is naked with vulnerability carefully interweaving lines like, “but you, make me want to plan out my last days on Earth eating you,” with the whole song depicting the weight that this light can lift off of a beaten down soul. Consisting of an electric guitar, her voice, and not much else, it’s an open song that furthers the vulnerable and honest feeling of listening to her deepest desires of having her pain taken away from her. It’s an intoxicatingly beautiful moment in the album’s runtime.

With the deeply spiritual themes that the album depicts, Martinez still includes earthly themes for her fans to grab onto since even she is still defined by her current form. These more familiar concepts appear in tracks like SPIDER WEB, breaking down the constricting hold social media squeezes into one’s mind, “feeding off our highs and lows and curious to see us struggle.” The track itself is an uber catchy tune that has an electronic sparkle throughout its chorus, alongside mouth-made noise from the album’s producer, CJ Baran. This divulgence into earthly topics would continue on in LEECHES, commenting on the residents of the crushing city of Los Angeles, who Inhabit its caverns for every wrong reason.

Stories of romantic conflict fuel a portion of the tracks on the album which is where we begin to see Martinez’s growth from a previous relationship with alt-rock rapper Oliver Tree. Beginning as a painful discussion of one partner who communicates by becoming louder and aggressive, and one who allows for the collection of thoughts before speaking in BATTLE OF THE LARYNX, and continuing on through THE CONTORTIONIST, depicting a partner bending over backwards for someone they can never please. Martinez leans into the rock genre with heavier drums than her normal sound in B.O.T.L. before flipping into a stringy orchestral aura with heavy bass, cracking bones, and distorted vocals in THE CONTORTIONIST depicting her frustration with changing who she is to appease someone other than herself. The message of a past toxic relationship becomes more pointed as the journey continues.

MOON CYCLE is the most direct of the romantically conflicted songs, and the most polarizing. Martinez has always included a “taboo” subject on each of her albums, with this album’s taboo subject being menstruation. Fading in under the plucking of guitar strings are low rumbles sourced from actual audio recordings of the singer’s own stomach cramps, and with this, she begins to point a finger. As fans have pointed out, Oliver Tree has a song by the name of Revival in which he raps the line, “stacking shit, like each brick on a pyramid, I’m angry and bloody like a b*tch on her period.” Melanie takes this line and directly references both the cadence of the rapper, and the words used to vilify a woman’s cycle in her own lyrics, “’Why you always act so serious?’ I said, “Baby boy you know I’m on my period,’ yuh,” and again later in the song by singing, “I could win a fight on my period, matter of fact, right now, I can build a pyramid.” Martinez directly addresses her ex-partner’s crude ideas of the natural cycle, but also uses him as a jumping point to talk about the larger conversation around the demonization and adverse reaction societal structures have to a woman’s body in many forms. She goes on to portray the cycle using beautiful language like, “juice melting like raspberry, pomegranate, it’s so scary how my aura got him howling at my moon cycle, baby,” to begin the change of perception on the earthly bodies our souls possess in our time here.

This rebranding of empowerment continues in NYMPHOLOGY, where often femme people who are mystical or spiritual can be regarded by cis men as crazy or “manic pixie dream girls,” as a way to mock and taunt them. Martinez calls for an embrace of the term, saying, “Be the manic pixie dream girl that you wanna be,” and going on to further degrade the idea that a man can force a femme person into a nurturing, motherly role just for them to be regarded as a prophet and all-knowing being. Ending with a minute long hip-hop interlude built into the track and known as the unlisted name, “Amulet.” the beat is joined by heavily distorted vocals. Martinez dips into an almost trap-rap of comparing her self-worth to rubies, diamonds, and moldavite. Following up this track, EVIL is the culmination of the frustration from the earthly struggles of the past couple tracks, and final release of all of this negativity a song that required multiple rewrites until it finally contained lyrics that were, “the most savage and the most c*nty.” Layering all this over a heavy but almost motivating and upbeat backing gives the track a bitterly sweet juxtaposition to its harsh lyrics. “Hope you never cope, hope you slip on soap, crack your head like an egg, wanna see the yolk,” is a line that really feels like a cathartic scream of frustration from a person who’s been told to sit down and be quiet one too many times. Interestingly, this was regarded by Martinez as, “the most challenging song to sing.”

With the final outcry of negativity and wash of past life traumas, we are brought to the WOMB. Preparing for rebirth, we begin with a low growl before being pierced with a light guitar, Martinez then floats in with the descriptions of forgetting the past life lived, and the butterflies that come with preparing to start anew. Martinez said in an interview about the coming album that, “Portals screams death is life is death is life is death is life. A continuous loop. A circle.” She holds true to this, as the album begins and ends with that very same message, an echoey voice stating that, “life is death is life is death is life is,” before fading off and leading the listener to begin anew.

Portals is above all else, a journey of self-exploration and reflection. It’s funny really, in the artist’s past two albums where she has molded herself as the main character, it is in the rebranding of this character, in the current form of herself where she’s covered in prosthetics and unrecognizable, where we see more of Melanie Martinez than we ever have before. The deeply vulnerable and existential album is healing, both for the creator and the listener. It’s a comforting thought that we’re introduced to, that one person can be so many different things, and at the end of it all, be left with the “best of” moments in our many lives. Portals is a beautiful story of the temporary difficulties a soul can face, and I urge anyone to listen with an open mind. Especially to a thought cycle that can be so different from the norm, but then again, what fun is normal when you can go see a pink-skinned, four-eyed nymph float across stage while singing about the natural beauty of period blood?

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