There is a tension in the air on ‘Short Movie’ that hasn’t been present since 2010’s transitional ‘I Speak Because I Can’, when Laura Marling sought to quickly escape the rather jovial indie-folk scene and find a “stepping stone” to other musical climes. It added a sharply affecting air of world-weary melancholy and an acerbic imagery that has mutated over the past five years. That 2011’s ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ and 2013’s ‘Once I Was An Eagle’ were both such supremely accomplished and often beautiful records, made it rather likely that the artist had found her furrow and would conceivably plough it successfully for many decades hence.
One suspects that this realisation also dawned on Marling, prompting a transatlantic relocation and several years spent living in Los Angeles remembering how to be young, confused and wide-eyed. 2014 began with the writing of an album inspired by this shift and concluded with a return to London, where these songs were recorded. The itch that sent her out there is present throughout these jittery fifty minutes, most noticeably captured by the preference for an electric guitar over the acoustic.
By her own admission, Marling plays both instruments in largely the same fashion, but there is a fidgety energy in the way she launches into tracks like ‘False Hope’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Bring You Down’ that is confirmation that the ‘more of the same’ predictions were wide of the mark. Opting to self-produce after three records with Ethan Johns at the helm, there is a certain loss of polish but with that come some risks. Most noteworthy is a decision to record several string parts with almost no direction for the players beyond the key and chord progression, creating a background bustle behind the more conventional renderings which were then placed in the foreground of the mix. Opener ‘Warrior’ slowly emerges out of a reverb-heavy soundscape, the unsettling swirl ever-present throughout. When first single ‘False Hope’ initially does something not dissimilar, it’s tempting to think that the sonic palette for ‘Short Movie’ has been set, but one of the album’s most significant shifts occurs on the minute mark. As Marling sings “a storm hits the city and the lights go out before I can prepare”, the band suddenly take flight, mid-line, and pounding drums accompany a malevolent guitar part as the weather pens the singer in. Before long the tempest has twisted into a claustrophobic concern about the future, only to come to an abrupt halt.
While the rumbling heft of certain songs is justifiably proving a substantial talking point for this album, several of the more subdued moments are no less stirring. ‘Walk Alone’ finds Marling rebutting a claim that she can’t love, stating that “I can’t walk alone”, before imploring “I just need a little more time” in a fractured, strained falsetto that warrants multiple replays. As if reeling from such openness, it is followed by the playfully snarky ‘Strange’ which charges along with an unashamedly affected vocal informing the listener of the many lies told by dubious lovers.
Other words are borrowed for ‘Gurdjieff’s Daughter’, with much of the lyric built around a story told by Alejandro Jodorowsky about an encounter with the daughter of spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff. During an intimate entanglement in a hotel room, she proffered forth a list of rules by which society should live, many of which have now been appropriated by Marling. For someone reconsidering their place in the general scheme of things, it’s not difficult to see the temptation of the words “Never give orders, just to be obeyed / Never consider yourself or others, without knowing that you’ll change.” Already bedecked with a beautiful chorus and perhaps the album’s finest realisation of her more energised electric sound, it has one final surprise to deliver, suddenly fading with a jangling rapidity that will have fans of The Smiths in raptures.
The title track hinges on the world view of an ageing hippy she encountered in California, planting his “it’s a short fucking movie, man’ at its centre, while ‘How Can I’ seizes the initiative and seems to pave the way for the return home, reinvigorated and restored, though not without concerns. ‘Short Movie’ is a record by an artist shaking her life up, spending a little more time peering at the stars and resisting the lure of the familiar. It is, as a result, a commanding and sincerely fascinating listen that stands tall in a catalogue a regue already awash with magic. While the live shows supporting it were a curiously mixed bag, held in a moment, these songs are a delight.