“The further I get into songwriting, the more I understand myself – the less I wriggle in my skin – the easier songwriting becomes.” So said Laura Marling around the time of the release of 2013’s ‘Once I Was An Eagle.’ It’s oft-repeated but few artists develop so consistently. In her fifth album ‘Short Movie’, a spell living in Los Angeles throws up all kinds of stories, characters, emotions and different ways of looking at the world. Here’s a track-by-track run-through of first impressions. The album is released on March 23, 2015.
The album opens with a story. She is the horse, ‘you’ are the warrior, and… she’s just not that into you. “I can’t be your horse anymore, you’re not the warrior I’ve been looking for,” she sighs. You can almost smell the mouldiness of a relationship gone off. A warm, resonant guitar riff canters alongside Marling’s vocals, which are, surprisingly, synthesised at times. Marling’s gone auto-tune?! Not quite, but the dreamlike vocal effects and repeated cycle of a blossoming cymbal could be a soundtrack to a storm on an alien planet.
Once spurned, the warrior retaliates and sticks a knife in her leg. Her accent’s still pretty idiosyncratic: Marling rhymes ‘bloody trail’ with ‘hell’. “I cannot protect you from who you want to be,” she stings, a comment on the identity politics of Los Angeles, perhaps, a theme she returns to later in the album.
2. False Hope
Anyone prone to introversion will relate to ‘False Hope’. ‘Would it be OK if I just came home tonight?’ she asks, her voice released and rich. “Is it still ok that I don’t know how to be alone?” It’s got some of the simmering rage of PJ Harvey’s ‘Stories Of The City, Stories Of The Sea’ as she sings of urban alienation, in this case on the Upper West Side. Dynamics play an important part on the album, and the entrance of the rhythm section intensifies the brimming sense of self. “Is it still OK that I don’t know how to be, at all?” Part of Marling’s skill lies in her ability to write a lyric inspired by experience while retaining a universal sense of timelessness and placelessness. Insomnia is present and you wonder whether the woman downstairs who’s lost her ‘miyiyiynd’ might just be a projection.
3. I Feel Your Love
Marling is often described as self-contained or self-possessed. Much is made of her talent for reflecting the facets life despite being just 23 (with near 100 songs under her belt.) In ‘I Feel Your Love’ she is contained by love but, by the end of the song, it’s suffocating rather than healthy. Again, rhythm guitar bolsters the song’s sentiments. “Keep your love around me so I can’t get along,” she starts, before commanding, “please let me go.”
4. Walk Alone
Marling writes notes that drip off her guitar like water. Her songwriting process seems so natural and organic and she makes it sound easy. ‘Walk Alone’ opens with droplets of melody that break into something of a bluesy riff, fingerprinted with LA’s musical influence. Her vocal – ‘I just need a little more time…’ – joins in as Marling’s idiosyncratic tics appear for the first time. Those low-voiced speaky-singing lilts and tilts could be no one else but her.
‘Ah – one, two, three, four’ opens ‘Strange’, a track on the album that sees her experiment further with her voice as an instrument. She intones Beat-like incantations to a married family man in sardonic speak-song. It reminds me a bit of Tom Vek on ‘A Chore’. When she bursts into song at 1.48 and again at 3:00, it’s a beam of sunlight and sounds all the sweeter for the contrast. It’s a song about destiny, accepting the hand you’ve been dealt and being a ‘good man’. “I don’t love you like you love me I’m pretty sure that you know,” she shrugs, matter-of-factly.
6. Don’t Let Me Bring You Down
No, it’s not a Neil Young cover (but maybe that will happen one day; ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ was the first song Marling learned on the guitar). It seems to be directly about her move to Silver Lake, LA, a change borne out of the desire to be rooted in one place for more than a couple of weeks after a whirlwind six years. “Living here is a game I don’t know how to play / how you’re not somebody until somebody knows your name,” is how she sums it up. A sense of dislocation and being out of place is palpable – as it is throughout the album – but the voice is soulful and melismatic. At times it even trips into a soul/R&B vibe. “Love seems to be some kind of trickery” and the melody that goes with it could work on a 60s classic tune.
We know this by now, but Marling isn’t interested in traditional song structure. There’s nary a chorus or ABABCB thing going on in ‘Short Movie’. ‘We belonged to someone and that was easy,’ she sighs, packing a world childhood experience into eight poetic words. ‘How did I get lost? Looking for God on Santa Cruz… Well, I went too far this time.” God and the ephemera surrounding a concept of the divine crop up throughout the album. They end up in Joshua Tree – “I got us lost” – and Marling asks: “Was the bed too high for me? Spent a month thinking I was a high desert tree.” A clue in there to certain Joshua Tree activities? Perhaps.
8. Gurdjieff’s Daughter
Marling has been much more than the sum of her influences for a while, but it sounds as if Dire Straits might’ve been on the stereo at some point. It’s a surreal picture about people donning themselves in crystals, with their hands on a pistol, afraid of the dark. “Don’t be impressed by big personalities,” she sings, and you get the sense she’s telling herself a lesson she’s long since learned. One of the best ‘choruses’ on the album.
In the same way the first four tracks of ‘Once I Was An Eagle’ ran into the other, ‘Gurgjieff’s Daighter’ and ‘Divine’ seem to be musically two-halves of a whole. They start with very similar chords. But for the first time in the album, there are backing vocals and harmonies, and it serves to make Marling’s voice sound ever more perfect when it’s on its own. “Break the water, make a ripple once in a while,” she sings, recommending the act of experimentation.
10. How Can I
Marling’s website was updated recently with a moving picture homepage depicting a horse riding through the desert as the sun sets. After a little while the stars appear and the horse turns into the constellation Pegasus. The song has a similar sense of space and desire to flee. It about riding up mountains, taking corners, taking buses, taking a ride. Even the moon will be “gone soon.” “I’m going back East where I belong,” she sings, echoing Joni Mitchell’s “it’s really not my home” on ‘Carey’. It’s sad too: ‘How will I live without you? How will I live?”
11. Howl At The Moon
This is the romantic track on the album: “Kissing the rain off my shoulders, answering questions with stares.” It’s about the fear of the impending dawn, the end of something, the prospect of leaving. Imagery casts everything in a dappled light – the “sun kicks the moon off the mountain” – and measured pace and pause combine to make this one of the best songs. Shades of Dire Straits’ ‘Telegraph Road’, Neil Young and John Mayer’s guitar-playing at its bluesiest and most gorgeous appear now and again.
12. Short Movie
Marling has a knack of writing a melodic filigree which never leaves you. ‘Short Movie’, the album’s title track, is one of the most experimental on the album. There’s insectival Xenakis-style strings that sounds like an orchestra tuning up, LOUDquietLOUD dynamics and the repeated lyrics “it’s a short fucking movie, man”. Te thoughts are fractured. “Who do you think you are? Just a girl that can play guitar?” she sneers. She actually appeared in a short film called Woman Driver and won an award for it recently.
13. Worship Me
We’re 13 songs in now. It’s quite a long album, though not as long as the 16-track ‘Once I Was An Eagle’. The closer is a diaphanous incantation. “It’s God you need, it’s God you need,” she repeats. “Sit down and worship me, devote you life to me.” Perhaps it’s a return to the character of the priestess in opening track ‘The Warrior’? Another pearl with a crack – the character who wants to consume and possess – ends an album that proves once again that Marling is an extraordinary songwriter.