At first, it seems Laura Marling hasn’t really changed since debuting in 2008 as the princess of English neo-folk. “Warrior,” the premier track on her fifth and latest album, Short Movie, offers that growling, ambient, trademark sound, bursting with her typical emotional uncertainty: “Well, I can’t be your horse any more; you’re not the warrior I’ve been looking for.” This first story is the album’s longest, and slowly draws us in, pulling over the blanket and lulling us into a trance-like state of comfort while she muses about emotion.
Until the second track, anyway. “False Hope” shakes off any presumptions of pushover acoustic folk: “Is it still okay that I don’t know how to be alone? Would it be okay if I just came home tonight?” she sings a little louder, suddenly finding fuel from that vulnerability she’s been crooning about her whole career. It’s a bouncy tune, and one of the album’s best. “Neither of us is gonna sleep tonight—we’ve false hope,” she says, talk-singing to us in a blunt lecture, sounding equal parts aroused and self-defeated.
That’s always been Marling’s gambit. Often labeled as self-possessed, her source material has been an eternally ambivalent attitude toward romance. Should I or shouldn’t I? Either she knows it’s wrong, or he knows it’s wrong, or they both do and have sex anyway, inevitably hurting themselves and others, giving her much to ruminate about afterward. In that way, her style has always teetered on the melodramatic, but now, by driving the message home with a new, distinctly Americanized sound—Marling released Short Movie after two years’ musical abstinence in California—it does feel fresher.
Nowhere is this clearer than on “Strange,” a breakaway homage to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan’s schmaltzy side, tossed in a Beat-poet stew replete with bongos and sassy, crammed-in quips. “I know you love your children, I know you love your wife,” she opens. “I can offer you so little help, but just accept the hands that you’ve been dealt.” It’s a cynical indictment of romance—no surprises there—but in such a distinctly late-’60s style that one stodgy British critic actually admonished her for seemingly adopting a brief American accent. Stateside listeners may let this slide.
You can hear those two sides of the pond play tug-of-war on the album: the same hard-folk Americana that elevates her music to new heights also makes the entirety feel divided, sometimes inconsistent. On tracks like “Easy” and “How Can I,” Marling retains a few-years-old sound that soothes in a nod-along kind of way, while the upbeat “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down” features her breathlessly gasping, “Did you think I was fucking around?” The rebel attitude isn’t new, but the energy is.
To be clear, the diversity is welcome—she rocks it, no doubt—but it also feels a little half-hearted. She offers inklings of wanting to break into new territory, of evolving into an extroverted Californian while retaining her introspective English soul. In straddling the Pacific Ocean, she’s neither there nor here, making it clear that her ambivalence extends far beyond romance alone.
Written by Michael Fraiman
OurVinyl | Contributor