The travel-weary storyteller draws on a year spent drifting to bring a taste of Americana to her compelling fifth album
Laura Marling must wish that life made as much sense to her as songwriting does. She’s still only 25 years old, but the four albums she’s released thus far sound like the product of lifetimes, each one more accomplished and acclaimed than the last.
Her fifth, ‘Short Movie’, was born of a sort of existential gap-year ennui. Since the release of 2013’s ‘Once I Was an Eagle’, Marling has drifted in Los Angeles, bought a house in London, retreated from (and returned to) making music, dabbled in mysticism, applied – unsuccessfully – to a poetry course in upstate New York and even, briefly, held down a regular, bills-paying service job, though not necessarily in that order. If ‘Short Movie’ were just that, it would be a ‘70s New Hollywood film about a young, precocious and confused loner trying to find her place in the world, but the acuity of Marling’s talent makes any sort of ambiguous ending impossible. This might not be what she wants to do with the rest of her life, but there’s little doubt that it’s what she should be doing right now.
‘Short Movie’ is Marling’s second attempt at following ‘Once I Was an Eagle’ – the decision to scrap the first, which she started with longtime producer Ethan Johns in late 2013, kicked off the quarter-life crisis described above. She’s produced this one herself and the results are surprisingly rockist – the electric guitar is especially prominent, amplifying ostensibly fragile folk songs like ‘Walk Alone’ or ‘Howl At The Moon’ into something more panoramic and spiritually American-sounding. ‘False Hope’ starts off full of quiet, coiled anxiety before the drums kick in with the sudden, unexpected force of Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 storm which serves as a backdrop for its tale of being barricaded in an Upper West Side apartment with no electricity. The pinched guitar licks and drivetime-radio chorus of ‘Gurdjieff’s Daughter’ even sound a bit like Dire Straits. However, the story behind the lyrics is rooted firmly in the esoteric.
Yet while there’s a Yankee bloom on the English rose, ‘Short Movie’ isn’t an outright volte-face. Warning well-meaning boys of the perils of falling in love with her is a recurrent theme of Marling’s. She revisits it on ‘Warrior’, whose sighing rebuke of “I can’t be your horse anymore, you’re not the warrior I’m looking for” makes it clear that her priority is walking her own path, not making someone else’s easier. ‘Strange’ is blunter still: “Should you fall in love with me, your love becomes my responsibility and I can never do you wrong… do you know how hard that is?” She often tempers candour with moments of sweetness, but even ‘How Can I’, for all its wistful talk of “riding up mountains, turning corners in our lives”, has the spectre of impermanence hanging over it; the song ends with Marling, “going back east, where I belong”, alone.
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More than anything else, it’s that restlessness, that fear of becoming too comfortable or complacent by staying in one place, which seems to define Marling. There’s no overarching narrative to ‘Short Movie’ – it plays out like a series of vignettes, of moods and moments, people and places – but there is a sense of a journey completed, with a hard-won wisdom at the end of it. Marling is her own protagonist – flawed, like anyone else, but utterly compelling all the same.
Director: Laura Marling
Record label: Virgin EMI
Release date: 23 Mar, 2015