I need to get this out of my system right away: Laura Marling just pulled a Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival on us.
That felt good. And now I can return to avoiding overtired music writing clichés. I promise not to call Marling a “sultry chanteuse” or refer this album as her Sgt. Pepper’s. Cross my heart. Hope to die.
For what it’s worth, I am using the Dylan in ’65 atrocity correctly. Marling really does go electric on Short Movie, her fifth album in seven years. She warned us of her impending amplification back in 2011 when she told The Guardian that she sensed the approach of an “electric phase.” All four of her previous albums are acoustic; two (including Short Movie’s predecessor, Once I Was An Eagle) were shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. So to describe Marling’s decision to plug in as a huge freaking deal is something of an understatement.
Electrifying her sound is a perfect move as far as sonic evolutions go. The choice to maintain the focus on Marling’s singular playing talent while altering its delivery appears a certain stroke of genius on paper. On the record, it is at turns elegant, magnificent and interesting, although accompanied by a few growing pains.
As listeners, we ought to be somewhat grateful for her troubles. Growing pains mean, well, just that. Marling avoids the temptation to write Once I Was An Eagle 2 and settle in conquered territory, however remarkable that territory may have been. The pleasant but ordinary cuts (“Easy” and “Worship Me”) cannot dilute her at her best, which is how she spends the majority of the record.
Marling turns luminous when entrenched in her own darkness. Her meditations on love and insomnia during a power outage in New York mark the gorgeously restless “False Hope.” Ominous strumming backs fervent pleas to the lover holding her captive on “I Feel Your Love.” And piercing guitar fills her surroundings as she traverses the desert before an uncertain dawn on the haunting “Howl.” That very guitar is the album’s most constant presence, evocative and impossible to ignore.
For all her exploration, Marling remains herself: the impossibly wise, defiant and talented songwriter falling in and out of a complicated love. Now she has gone electric, and neither her voice nor her playing nor her songwriting nor her lyricism has suffered greatly for it. Apologies, those of you waiting for her to finally release a disappointing album. You’re straight out of luck with this one.