Laura Marling – Short Movie

Immediately dubbed a teen prodigy upon the release of her 2008 debut, Laura Marling has only grown more interesting since then says DOUG WALLEN.

Laura Marling works within the folk tradition but at the same time roughs it up. That’s especially true of her fifth album, the first written on electric guitar and a restless document of her stint living in Los Angeles. It’s full of questions – posed both outward and inward – and those constant enquiries find an ideal engine in Marling’s loping, rattling guitar work.

In her FL interview, Marling said she “grew attached to the use of different voices” while writing short stories, which has carried over into her songs. And, certainly, one of the first things we notice about Short Movie is how much her vocal approach can vary from song to song. She’s not just cycling through starkly different moods but trying out whole vocal personalities, whether arch and affected on ‘Strange’ or druggy and detached on the opening ‘Warrior’. Combined with most of these songs’ clipped running times (usually under four minutes) and her philosophical lyrics, those tics and tricks of Marling’s voice can make this album all the harder to fully grasp.

“An album of seeking rather than settling down”

But why grasp it in the first place? Why set out to decipher it exactly when it’s so rewarding to wander its endless twists, hearing coy glimpses of meaning in new places each time? Even when Marling gives us an exact setting, like a shared apartment on New York’s Upper West Side on the drum-kicked ‘False Hope’ or California’s Santa Cruz and Joshua Tree on ‘Easy’, she’s not so much setting up a detailed story as flicking through postcards like flashcards, hinting at specific memories without giving too much away. If such opacity sounds frustrating, it yields artful images like “I spent a month thinking I was a high desert tree,” which sums up a long tradition of West Coast soul-searching in just 11 words.

No matter how much she reveals or doesn’t, listeners are always going to perceive each of Marling’s albums as some degree of diary entry from whatever age she’s at. So here she is in her mid-20s, shedding off both the acoustic guitar and the England of her childhood to find inspiration elsewhere. The huskiness of her voice on tracks like ‘False Hope’ can still give the impression that she’s older than she is, but Short Movie plays very much like an album of seeking rather than settling down, of picking away curiously at life choices rather than committing to one. “I’m taking more risks now/I’m stepping out of line,” she sings on ‘How Can I’, during which she also threatens to head “back East, where I belong” – something she eventually did when she returned to London from LA.

Amidst that recurring theme of wondering where she should be – both geographically and in life – are some delightfully scathing takedowns of others. “I’m a woman now, can you believe/Only one thing I’m sure of, and that’s that you deceive,” sings Marling on the Bill Callahan-esque ‘Don’t Let Me Bring You Down’, in addition to the sarcastic title refrain. “You’re not the warrior I would die for,” she announces on the very first song, while ‘Walk Alone’ opens with the unambiguous declaration “I think you were wrong.” “Who do you think you are? Just a girl that can play guitar,” she sings almost as an aside on the title track, one of three songs to feature satisfying brushes with cursing. Meanwhile, ‘Strange’ muses on morality and manhood against harried, volatile folk and ‘Gurdjieff’s Daughter’ references the advice of the late spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff for his daughter, Dushka Howarth, including warnings about the folly of pride.

There’s so much to absorb in Marling’s words and voice that one can overlook the arrangements and production. Co-produced in London with drummer Matt Ingram and engineer Dan Cox, Marling renders these songs with a certain dryness but leaves room for sudden swirling flourishes of cello and fiddle, as well as the way the supple rhythm section moulds to her changeable lead. Most of these songs plunge ahead with frazzled momentum, and even the slower ones exude a rippling uncertainty. There’s nothing still or serene about them.

That feeling of unresolved personal investigations makes this album so much more intriguing than if Marling had neatly closed every door she opened.