The first song on the fourth record from Marnie Stern is called “Year of the Glad” — a nod to Infinite Jest as well as a declaration of its theme — and crests with Stern yelling, “Everything’s starting now.” For a second it feels like The Chronicles of Marnia is going to be an album about rejuvenation — about letting go of the things that trouble you and kicking open the door of the dark house to let the sunshine pour in. And then the next song starts, and before long Stern is shouting, “The fear creeping in, and I am losing hope in my body.” So it goes throughout Chronicles, a breathtaking spiral of sound that fizzes and pops like a pinwheel of fireworks. It’s not only Stern’s best record, but one of the best of the year to date.
Part of that is due to its keen focus. The name Marnie Stern rarely appears in print without the phrase “guitar virtuoso” somewhere close behind it, and while that descriptor is accurate, it often felt in Stern’s past work that the songwriting was second to the string-searing. Chronicles remedies that, offering Stern’s most assured melodies to date and burning out the dense thicket of guitars that previously ran wild. In interviews promoting the record, Stern has referred to this process by producer Nicholas Vernhes as “clearing out the clutter,” but the result is that Stern’s playing actually feels more astounding because it’s less obscured. The title track, with its alternating broad slashes and giddy squiggles, feels like an outtake from gone-too-soon Baltimore band Ponytail, and “Noonan” seems set on creating some strain of avant-Tropicalia, a jittery, dancing guitar providing its sinuous spine. The construction of the songs throughout is ornate without being gaudy and, if such a thing is possible, subtly spectacular.
But it’s more than that: As the title implies, Chronicles feels deeply personal, Stern as a 36-year-old cataloging the last few years of her life and assessing what she sees with a combination of pride and panic. Advancing age has a way of stripping the romance from adolescent dreams, and Chronicles is bracingly clear-eyed and unafraid, staring down what happens when the thing you’ve spent your life doing no longer feels like the thing you can spend the rest of your life doing. It’s also one of the most honest assessments of what it means to be a full-time musician — and, specifically, a full-time indie musician — ever written, translating intangibles like “critical acclaim” and “artistic integrity” into real-world things like rent payments and the price — and worth — of personal stature and reputation. It’s not for nothing one of the songs is called “Nothing is Easy”; Stern mingles determination with defeat, consistently refusing to come to clean conclusions or to sink into bland reassurances. When she sings “Don’t you wanna be somebody? Don’t you wanna be?” it’s clear the “you” in that sentence is herself, and the line feels less like an exhortation and more like a chastisement.
All of this makes Chronicles sound like a drag, which it absolutely is not. It is, instead, a nervous, leaping record, where high-wattage guitars illuminate songs that don’t fear the darkness and where a new economy of sound results in music that feels thrillingly infinite. Stern spends much of Chronicles concerned about her legacy; fittingly, it is also the record where she secures it.