To longtime devotees of British folk singer Laura Marling, hearing the first electric guitar drone on her new album Short Movie will feel akin to Dylan fans watching that folk prophet plug in at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Marling’s first four albums, all released before the wunderkind turned 24, are beautifully minimalist, building complexity around Marling’s deft acoustic fingerpicking and preternaturally poetic lyrics. Marling has thus evolved into a precocious musical auteur, having developed over the course of this early work an unmistakable musical signature that distinguishes her from the flock of roots musicians, both American and British, who have come into vogue alongside her over the years.
In the context of this established style, Short Movie‘s lead single “False Hope” sounds like a hard left turn. Opening with Marling’s quick minor-key strumming and the frank question “Is it still okay that I don’t know how to be alone?”, the song adds multiple electric guitar parts atop the main acoustic progression, building to a percussive climax on the line “I hear you banging through the wall / A dying animal’s last call.” Applying and releasing pressure throughout, the song is structured more like a rock cri de coeur than many of Marling’s prior compositions, which remained taught and tortured by virtue of their sonic restraint. Lyrically, the song paints a panorama of the Los Angeles cityscape during the desolate early morning hours, as the lonely and insomniac singer identifies with a downstairs neighbor who has “lost her mind”. The song thus sets the tone for the entire album, which explores the persistent, discordant isolation that Marling felt while spending two years in a sun-drenched American city of 12 million people.
Throughout Short Movie, Marling largely abandons the dense figurative layers — the mythological references and sustained metaphors — that veiled her emotional confessionalism on previous album Once I Was an Eagle. Instead, her voice is forthright and unfiltered, giving detailed narrative contours to the “existential meltdown” (her words) that she experienced while living in L.A. “How Can I” provides the SparkNotes summary of this crisis: having moved to the States to be closer to a lover (“I will go anywhere with you / I will go when you ask me to”), Marling was left to pine in his absence, steadily thickening the self-protective walls around her heart (“I put up my fists now until I get what’s mine”) and ultimately deciding to return to London (“I’m going back East where I belong”).
As the product of this loss, Short Movie documents Marling’s interrogation of her own capacity to love and, on a broader, almost cosmic level, the capacity for love to bring about anything other than existential loneliness and a pervasive sense of failure. The sentiment running throughout the album resonates with Dylan’s post-breakup line from “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”, “You just kind of wasted my precious time,” though on Short Movie this sense of resignation is shot through with alternating bursts of rage and tentative moments of hope. The word “alone” appears on nearly every song; at times, it characterizes Marling’s sense of self-doubt (“I can’t walk alone”), but at others it signals what is, by default, the only path forward (“You can’t be found if you’re not all alone.”)
The vacuum opened up by Marling’s breakup also creates room for spiritual searching: “Gurdjieff’s Daughter” is named for the early-20th-century Russian spiritualist who advocated living in a state of “waking sleep,” while the album’s title track plays with a phrase Marling picked up from a California shaman who would frequently declare, “It’s a short fucking movie, man,” as a way of saying, “Life’s too short for pining over bullshit.” Short Movie pines, appropriately, but it also finds ways to blast through emotional stasis. The eclectic guitar thus becomes a tool that complements Marling’s lyrics on this pivotal album, at times articulating visceral anger and, at others, obliterating psychic barriers and clearing space for something new.