opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
Laura Marling is one of those artists that operate with such consistency and prolificacy that it can be easy to take them for granted. For casual fans, it can devolve into what-have-you-done-for-me-lately syndrome. It isn’t unusual for a singer-songwriter to hit a mid-career slump. What is unusual is to hit the slump before you’re in your mid-20s. Marling’s debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, hit shelves only three days after her 18th birthday. Three more albums followed over the next five years, each buoying her closer to the top of the heap in Britain’s folk-rock renaissance. If you listen to her lyrics and watch her interviews, it’s obvious that she is sage beyond her years, but the intensity of those timelines would take their toll on anyone. In the latter stages of her tour for her last album, Once I Was an Eagle, Marling vocally expressed doubts that she’d be able to continue performing.
So she took a break, relocated from her native England to Los Angeles, and didn’t contemplate recording music for several months. For most artists, this qualifies as an off-cycle between records. For Marling, it was enough time to recharge. Short Movie leans into the uncertainty that defined its gestation period, and emerges as one of Marling’s finest, and loudest, efforts yet. Ithas enough immaculate musicianship (oh, that fingerpicking) and lyricism to make you forget she ever left. Typical.
Opening track “Warrior” has the distinct feel of preparing for a gathering storm, with a resounding acoustic guitar, hissing ambience and Marling’s stoic vocals. After listening to the entirety of Short Movie, “Warrior” proves prophetic. Thisis a bolder, brasher work, and Marling demonstrates a continued knack for trawling the sounds of her contemporaries without compromising her own carefully shaped identity. “Walk Alone” brings to mind both Torres and Feist while “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down” evokes Fiona Apple. “Strange”, on the other hand, finds her in uncharted territory, taking on a talkier tone over an arrangement that clatters and bustles. “False Hope” also finds her in search of new sonic terrain, ticking up the tempo and the amplitude, and the tense “Gurdjieff’s Daughter” incorporates elements of Latin music that disintegrates into the refrain “Keep your eyes in the back of your mind.” Each song is impressive on its own; together, they are an eclectic, savvy mosaic.
While Marling’s prose remains defined by its simplicity and elegance, Short Movie doesn’t really possess a narrative. Its thoughts fragment from song to song, functioning as snapshots that often bleed into one another. When Marling sings “I’m taking more risks now/I’m stepping out of line/I put up my fists now/Until I get what’s mine” on “How Can I”, it serves as the album’s guiding philosophy. Sung in her honeyed vibrato that has drawn umpteen comparisons to Joni Mitchell, the conviction beneath the veneer is unmistakable. Short Movie has plenty to say, but it also asks the listener to meet it halfway and draw connections that aren’t immediately apparent.
The press releases for Short Movie emphasized the use of electric guitar. Not as prevalent as one would have been led to believe, the tracks where Marling plugs in find her flexing harder than she ever has before. Elsewhere, she continues to hone the fundamentals of the sound that launched her career. “Easy” and “Divine”, the former Southern-friend and the latter English countryside, recall her earlier works, but with more maturity and polish. And the growth is what really makes Short Movie such a striking accomplishment. Every time it seems like Marling has hit her peak, she changes the rules of the game, finding new ways to share more of herself through her music. Short Movie is an introspective journey crafted into a communal experience. It’s the product of a genuine artist losing faith in herself, hitting the reset button, and returning with an intensely personal work that manages to say something about us all. B+