Sunday, April 26, 2015

album review: 'short movie' by laura marling

Man, this record took way too long for me to talk about.

Now some of this I can blame on a turbulent month and a hefty back catalog, but I'd argue it's more than that in the case, so I think some explanation about my schedule is required. Before I review an album, I go back and listen through their entire back catalog. Not just the singles, not just the hits, the entire list of records - and I also endeavour to be an active listener. I'm the sort who if there are oblique or confusing lyrics, I'm going to digging through them line by line to truly parse them out, and that tends to require multiple listens. Coupled with the fact that I still try to get out multiple reviews in a week plus Billboard BREAKDOWN plus work a full time job... well, yeah, you get the picture.

And a lot of this comes down to the singer-songwriter we're going to be talking about today, a critically-acclaimed artist whose knack for intricate and mature lyricism meant her work didn't just merit additional listens, it demanded it. Yep, we're going to be talking about Laura Marling today, the sort of folk singer-songwriter that I have a hard time not liking, not just for her literary sensibility but for the fact she brought a level of maturity and songwriting craft that seemed beyond her years. And as her songwriter ventured more towards abstraction and layers, her material got trickier to process. Her first creative peak for me came on her second album I Speak Because I Can, which recruited Marcus Mumford to contribute to a record that not only easily outstripped anything he did with Mumford & Sons, but also had strong enough melodic grooves and writing to stand as one of the best of 2010. Her 2011 album A Creature I Don't Know was a little trickier to gauge given its slightly more abstract writing, but it was still incredibly solid if only because the writing was so damn good and it wasn't afraid to get noisier and nastier deeper into the record for cuts like 'The Beast' which kicks all amounts of ass. Then came Once I Was An Eagle in 2013, a record that dipped into even greater abstraction with even less instrumental accompaniment and one that took so many listens to really understand - and yet I'd still argue that as a songwriter Marling had never sounded better, an album that felt transitional only in that she was stepping towards something new and dropping an air of finality on what came before.

So when I heard she was releasing a new album that apparently featured electric guitar - a first for her - I was excited. After Once I Was An Eagle, a new beginning felt inevitable... so what did we get with her newest record Short Movie?

Well, here's the thing - another reason this review is so late is that for the longest time, I had a real hell of a time getting a handle on this album, even despite arguably being less abstract than Once I Was An Eagle. And after listen after listen, I think I've come to the conclusion that while I do really like many of the themes Laura Marling exposes on Short Movie and I definitely would not call this record bad, I do think it's a slight step back from her best and overall doesn't quite seem as distinctive and memorable as her best. In other words, damn, damn good, but not quite truly great.

Now if you're familiar with Laura Marling, her general vocal presence and sound hasn't changed all that much - she still sounds effortlessly soulful, fiery but tempered with a maturity that easily seems beyond her years, a girl who has seen and done too much and who might struggle that weight but still manages to carry it. It should be noted that while all of her albums do frame her as being affected by the lives she touches, this album paradoxically shows both more disaffection and vulnerability, with some tracks like 'Strange' or 'Short Movie' or 'Gurdjieff's Daughter' giving her more of a clipped sing-talk delivery that brings a feistiness that's actually pretty charming, and other songs showing her sounding more wounded or fearful or sorrowful. Throughout the course of the album, she's a little more restrained in her delivery on average than previous records - with the exception of a few high points like on 'Walk Alone' where you can tell she was pushing her voice's limit - but come on, there's a reason this girl has been compared to Joni Mitchell and she does earn it.

And one of the reasons she's earned that comparison has been in the lyrics and themes she's explored, most of which she's touched on before but with a newer framing device for Short Movie. The details are still sparse - whenever you do get fragments to set the scene, they stand out in vivid relief and let the imagination fill in the blanks - but where Marling has always stood out is her framing and poise. You can buy her words because she's got the wisdom and common sense to know exactly the consequences and have already seen the worst down the road, either in her choices to be alone or involve herself in relationships where she almost expects to be disappointed. Take 'Strange', where she's involved in a fling with a married man who sounds like he's going through a midlife crisis and is only really opening his eyes to the world through her - and yet she's cautious, warning him away, reminding him of his wife and family and how taking in the world through her will ending up hurting them both. Or take 'I Feel Your Love', how she fell for a guy and who to have him invest in her as much as she does him, even though for her it's partially a defense mechanism against loneliness... and yet in the end, she knows she has to walk away. Courtney Barnett wishes she could have Laura Marling's maturity and ability to make tough choices - or even make bad choices but paint them in such starkly human, universal tones that empathy becomes effortless. She might not have a lot of tact, but I definitely appreciate her blunt honesty.

But the framing device of this album is where things get truly intriguing in exploring the main theme of this record: the split between individualism and companionship, finding transcendence on a lonely road or solace in another... and in a warped twist that flies in the face of conventionality, Laura Marling finds far more security in being on her own, as even her closest friends seem to drift away or not live up to her standards. And it makes a certainn amount of sense - the philosophies of George Gurdjieff are referenced across this album and while at some moments it might seem trite, advice steeped in evolving mysteries that honestly feel a little bogus, the transcendence through passions does add a certain thrill to tracks like 'Divine'. And what I love about this record is that the framing is perfect: Laura Marling presents the situations in plain language without bias, and doesn't pretend that her lone wandering is perfect or that all she needs is love to keep her strong. There's fear that comes with being on your own, the lone horse that might be wounded by every warrior attempting to ride her or hold her back and down - sketched in visceral language on 'Warrior' - but it's where she knows, deep down, she has only herself to rely upon. For whenever she does interact with people, she's sick of the lies and masks and indecisive lack of passion - even as she does crave that companionship, which is why 'Easy' comes as such a moment of respite with my favourite lyric on the album, 'well you can't be lost if you're not on your own - you can't be found if you're not all alone'. More than anything, though, the album focuses on knowing yourself despite those who would confine you, whether you're with another or on your own, and if it feels messy and meandering getting there, it's intentional because it's very human.

So okay, if I have so much to praise in Laura Marling's lyrics and themes - themes she may have explored before or even explored better on early albums, but there's enough uniqueness in her framing to excuse it - where are the real problems? Well, believe it or not I think it comes in instrumentation. Not that it's bad - her choice to incorporate more electric guitar to add backing texture is inspired in the replacement of reverb to add depth and mass to the mix - but it can feel a little thin and barebones as the albums goes on. For as much as Marling writes some great hooks and beautiful melodies - the ominous haze of 'Warrior', the more aggressive picking of 'False Hope', the fantastic acoustic texture of 'Strange', the distant watery guitars of 'Don't Let Me Bring You Down', 'Howl', and 'Worship Me' - there's an odd listless tone of much of this album that makes it feel a fair bit longer than it is. I'll admit, I've always liked Marling's material with a little more groove or muscle, and you'd think that pushing her material into more vulnerable territory would spark more raw energy or at least a little more variance in the acoustic tracks to drive momentum... but for the most part, it's fairly sparse, lacking some of the truly killer instrumental moments that stood out to me so well on her earlier records. In other words, for as much as I can appreciate the quality and emotion of this record and how well it is presented lyrically, instrumentally it doesn't always grip me in the same way.

In any case, let me stress that I really do like this album - but I don't love it, not matter how much I want to love it. In comparison with her contemporaries, Laura Marling isn't quite as harrowing or visceral as Sharon Van Etten, as ramshackle and intimate as Hurray For The Riff Raff, as sorrowful as Lykke Li, as powerfully melodic and anthemic as Florence + The Machine or First Aid Kit, or as quirky or off-kilter as Vienna Teng or Regina Spektor, but there's a certain purity and universality that Laura Marling gets with her brand of simplicity that I can find gripping and beautiful, and I find her maturity a lot more compelling than whatever Courtney Barnett or Lana Del Rey put on display. To some extent this album does feel transitional - and given the entire album seems to focus on the idea of transition and evolution, it works for what it is. For me, a very strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you like any of the artists I mentioned here. Otherwise, while I might not be the biggest fan of stripped down acoustic minimalism, Laura Marling is one of the few doing it right, so check this out.

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