Album Reviews

Marnie Stern – The Comeback Kid

(Joyful Noise) UK release date: 3 November 2023

A decade on from The Chronicles Of Marnia, one of her generation’s foremost shredders returns with a sense of urgent euphoria

Marnie Stern - The Comeback Kid It’s been a long time since we last heard from Marnie Stern. Eleven years in fact, since her third album The Chronicles of Marnia was released. In that time, she’s had two children, and also held down a day job by playing in Seth Meyers’ house band on US talk show Late Night (that band incidentally is led by comedian and Portlandia star Fred Armisen, and includes some members of Les Savy Fav, surely making it the hippest house band in television).

That break appears to have refreshed Stern, and if you’d somehow forgotten just what an incredible guitarist she is, then the opening notes of Plain Speak will remind you. Stern doesn’t just ‘play’ guitar, she’s one of the foremost shredders of her generation – it’s no coincidence that the album’s artwork features a guitar seemingly taking off into space: that’s exactly what it sounds like when Stern hits her fretboard.

There’s a relentless quality to much of The Comeback Kid – the pace is so quickfire, that’s there’s barely time to pause for breath. Stern even sings in Plain Speak that “I can’t keep moving backwards”, and that energy powers through these tracks. She even appears to make up a song on the hoof on Believing Is Seeing: “What if I add this?” she sings, before adding a layer of glorious noise, while repeating the phrase and adding more and more guitars and handclaps, until the whole thing is fizzing and bubbling with creativity – all in under two minutes.

It’s fair to say that this may not be to everyone’s tastes. Stern has never been the most accessible of artists, and the combination of intricate math-rock with her, shall we say, idiosyncratic vocal style means that this album may put off as many people as it attracts. Yet there’s still a lot of accessible moments on The Comeback Kid – Til It’s Over is possibly the best song Stern’s written since the heartwrenching For Ash, a scurrying, pulsing Breeders-esque rocker featuring Arcade Fire‘s Jeremy Gara on drums, and channelling the same sort of stirring energy that the Canadian band are so good at conjuring up.

It’s one of a few moments on The Comeback Kid which marks a change of direction from Stern’s usual style – Working Memory steps away from her normal 100mph approach to create a anthemic rocker, while Il Girotondo Della Note is, believe it or not, a cover of an Ennio Morricone song – albeit one that, in Stern’s hands sounds less Spaghetti Western and more crazed Japanese girl-group music.

But what she does best is create that sense of urgent euphoria, and that is all still present and correct on The Comeback Kid. There are moments on songs like Plain Speak and Forward where everything seems to fuse together in a moment of cathartic release – almost like that guitar on the cover really has nowhere higher to go, so heads off into space instead. It’s been far too long since we’ve heard those sort of moments, and hopefully we won’t have to wait another 11 years to hear some more.

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