Following the elliptical beauty of 2013’s Once I Was an Eagle, Laura Marling returns with a more focused and direct approach that affirms her independence. The headlines will say she has “plugged in,” but Short Movie isn’t the seismic disruption that suggests. Yes, electric guitar appears throughout, but the biggest differences between this album and the last one lie in structure and tone. A contemporary rock sound inflects urgency and anger as Marling explores her identity in both love and art. She leaves behind much of the acoustic English folk sound that’s been her hallmark until now. The result is a record with a more immediate and striking impact, but is it progress for Marling to abandon the sound she had perfected?
After Once I Was An Eagle‘s release and supporting tour, a burnt-out Marling took a break from the music world, sequestering herself in Los Angeles. Marling describes this time as an opportunity to understand and possibly reinvent herself. She sloughed off her identity as a “successful musician” and began an inward exploration, filling her time reading, doing yoga, and exploring psychedelic culture in the California desert. The ensuing anxiety of isolation and the triumph of self-discovery became Short Movie‘s central themes.
Marling was spurred into action by her father’s gift of a cherry-red Gibson 335 electric guitar, which “completely changed my perspective on music,” she told Rolling Stone. The instrument effects a new tone for a Marling record, like on “False Hope”, where the pulsing, strummed electric guitar elevates the opening line, “Well, is it still OK that I don’t know how to be alone?” out of sad-sack navel-gazing and into something defiant, almost accusatory. When the bass and drums join the fray, the song transforms into an uptempo declaration of independence, more The Pretenders than Nick Drake.
Fans of Marling’s folk-inspired work need not despair. Her exquisite acoustic guitar remains a driving force throughout Short Movie. Songs like “Strange”, “Divine”, and “How Can I” are powerful testaments to Marling’s status as one of the most inventive acoustic guitarists in music today. Throughout Short Movie, she focuses on using her weapon of choice in new ways. “How Can I” in particular represents a blend of old and new, as her folk roots meet expressive melodic rock reminiscent of Blue-era Joni Mitchell.
The title song stands out as a unified declaration of this reborn Laura Marling. She flexes her exquisite fingerpicking skills on electric guitar as her lyrics alternate between affirming her artistic presence and establishing independence from an unhealthy relationship. As the song peaks with the wrenching lyrics, “They know that I loved you/ But they’ll never know why,” Marling stakes her claim as one of today’s most expressive songwriters alongside contemporaries Angel Olsen, Mark Kozelek, and Sharon Van Etten.
Short Movie lacks the seamless thematic and tonal cohesion of Once I Was An Eagle, but it offers more immediate pleasures. Marling has emerged from her reflective state angrier and stronger than before. With lines like “I’m taking more risks now/ I’m stepping out of line/ I put up my fists now until I get what’s mine” (from “How Can I”), she makes a compelling statement that she won’t be caged by expectations. Some may lament the apparent end of Marling’s idealized folk singer persona, but Marling believes — as should we — that change is progress, and more and better is to come.
Essential Tracks: “False Hope”, “How Can I”, and “Short Movie”