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Review: Laura Marling Reaches the Second Reel of Life’s ‘Short Movie’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: March 26, 2015
Label: Ribbon Music

It’s a little stunning these days to go back to Laura Marling’s first record and hear how her voice has toughened over the years. Not that her voice was ever all that twee, and not that she sounds like Nina Simone now, but listen to “Ghosts” or “Failure” or just about anything off of Alas I Cannot Swim now and you may be taken aback by the softness, the wistfulness she projects. Seven years, four albums, three Mercury Prize nominations, a couple of high-profile relationships, and one decently dramatic haircut later, her vocals have become lower, huskier, more resonating. It’s a jarring reminder of just how young she was when she broke out — 18 at the time of her debut’s release, younger even than LeBron James when he played his first game for the Cavaliers and just how much growing up she’s had to do in the public spotlight, even for an artist whose sophistication was startling from the very beginning.

Calling Short Movie Marling’s most mature album seems redundant, if not downright insulting — it’s her latest effort and she’s barely 25 years old, of course it’s her most mature album  but the pervading sensation of the LP is one of the singer-songwriter growing into her second skin. From the first track, “Warrior,” she’s casting off dudes that aren’t worthy of her support, declaring, “You have my love but it will not make you grow / I can’t be your horse anymore / You’re not the warrior I would die for.” It’s a Beyoncé-like sentiment, but delivered more with matter-of-fact empathy than spitting disdain, almost maternal in its deep disappointment. That feeling lasts until closer “Worship Me,” which Marling leads off with the admonishment “Little boy I know you want something from me / Yes I might be blind but I am free / Don’t you try and take that away from me,” leading to her offering, “It’s God you need / Sit down and worship me.” The self-assuredness is remarkable, expressed with such minimal bravado that it sounds like a reasonable enough proposal.

It helps that the sound of Short Movie is as fortified as Marling’s voice and lyrics. “Warrior” and “Worship” are mostly built around the rapid-fire acoustic picking that Marling has long been synonymous with, though now it comes amidst productions as dense with reverb and strings as a Mazzy Star album, but elsewhere on the LP, the folk rocker kicks out the jams in a way she never has before on record. Nobody will be mistaking her for a member of Childbirth anytime soon, but “False Hope” and “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down” are rooted in circular electric guitar riffs and full-band arrangements that make them sound like outtakes from PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. “False Hope” especially could’ve been an alt-rock smash in a bygone era, with its nervy lyrics about late-night lust and second-guessing, Laura breathless with urgency as she sings, “Is it still OK that I don’t know how to be / At all?” It’s an unexpected development for the predominantly unplugged Marling, but hardly an unwelcome one.

Even better than those are “Strange” and “Gurdjieffs’s Daughter,” in which Marling goes near-Rex Harrison with the sing-speaking in order to dispense world-weary wisdom over jaunty mid-tempo melodies. “Strange” sees her addressing a (potential?) lover who already has a wife and kids, telling him exactly what he doesn’t want to hear: “I can offer you so little help, but just accept the hands that you’ve been dealt / Do your best to be a good man.” It borders on the patronizing, but Marling’s delivery is so neutral that it never feels totally judgmental, especially as she offers on the wondrous chorus, “Do you know how hard that is? / Do you know how strange life can be?” It’s reminiscent of nothing as much as the Pretenders’ best tough-love songs, and in fact, Marling’s no-nonsense attitude and sort of Cheshire-cat-grinning vocal slyness make you wonder why you never noticed how much she sounds like Chrissie Hynde before.

Short Movie’s title track is its penultimate one, and it serves as the album’s enigmatic climax, with Marling making the loaded proclamations, “I’m paying for my mistake / That’s OK / I don’t mind a little pain” and “I got up in the world today, wondered who it was I could save,” repeatedly concluding, “It’s a short fucking movie, man.” The song resists easy interpretation, but it’s hard not to read a little exhaustion and anxiety that at her young age into Laura being a little further along into the film’s plot than she maybe feels like she should be, wondering how much can possibly still be remaining. That said, the new developments in sound and style of Marling’s fifth album  and the way her leading-lady status continues to evolve — leave it as her most captivating yet. Just watch the movie and don’t worry too much about the run time.