Short Movie is the sound of Laura Marling’s identity crisis. It’s her first album that actually sounds comfortable, and like Marling herself, might not be fully comfortable with that fact. Once I Was An Eagle was a towering record, an intimate yet epic album full of lush, bombastic songs and vocals often feverish in their intensity. But still, Marling and her acoustic guitar were always at the heart of things. That album marked her artistic evolution from precocious “old soul” to a young woman fully in command of her talent. Now she’s self-possessed, with an ease and relaxed vibe that has never before come through as fully as it does here.
But that tone—careworn and comfortable—is doing battle with the Laura Marling listeners know, the one who relentlessly interrogates the self, whether in the form of her storytelling style or intimate confessionals. The exact “I” of the songs isn’t as important as the fact that it’s Marling doing the singing; she’s too close to the bone, lyrically, for these to be character sketches, à la Bruce Springsteen on Nebraska. She’s at odds with the part of herself that likes the feeling of being comfortable, of finding her voice, and that tension drives Short Movie to places she hasn’t explored before.
The songs are the most diverse collection she’s done yet, and while they don’t all succeed, they’re all of a piece in terms of craftsmanship. “Warrior” opens things with a call to protect herself from those who would wound her, but with Marling’s characteristic refusal to accept one decision. It asks for new encounters even as it banishes old ones. “I’m just a horse with no name,” she sings, and the album that follows depicts this acknowledgement of a missing sense of self.
The best tracks showcase Marling’s ability to fuse her meandering musicality with her forceful passion. Already-released single “False Hope” is the barn-burner of the record, a fierce track more reminiscent of The Hot Rock-era Sleater-Kinney than the folk icons to which she’s often compared. “Short Movie” builds on questions and frustrations, as though Marling wants to step out of the song and shake her subject’s shoulders, in a voice tinged with disbelief and anger. She’s boldly moving away from her own powerful pipes, letting more vocal tics and asides come in, and it builds to a crescendo as emotionally resonant and fulfilling as anything she’s done.
But not all experiments work, and several times Marling’s self-assured footing feels like it loses the thread of what she’s trying to do, which is especially ironic given that it happens on the album’s most confident-sounding songs. “Strange” is practically a spoken word track at times, but lacks vigor. “Gurdjieff’s Daughter” is similarly ambitious: It’s a peppy, bouncing track that feels like an unearthed song from a 1960s French New Wave film. Again, Marling sounds so at home in her musical persona here—just past the one-minute mark, there’s an honest-to-God drums fuck-up, a rhythmic misfire that she just leaves in. It’s admirable, but easier to respect than enjoy. It feels a bit too loose, like Marling is so set on opening things up and having some fun that she sets aside the ineffable potency that animates most of her music.
But these are the difficulties of a piece of art that demands such rigorous attention, because Marling has set the bar so high for herself. Call it the curse of being very good: Having already crafted such strong artistic achievements in the past, the room for exploration and unevenness that is taken for granted with other artists feels more noticeable, even if it shouldn’t.
Short Movie is forever searching for something that can’t be articulated. Marling is looking for assurance, but anything she gets, she suddenly doesn’t want any more. “I never miss my chance to run,” she sings on “How Can I.” The listener can’t help feeling there’s a bigger subject: the state of being that Marling found while living in the United States. It’s the road, the solitary life, that continually pulls Marling away from the grounding emotional relationships that both comfort and bind. She wants to know how to make peace with that emotional state of never being sure, of never knowing what’s right. “I’m goin’ back East, where I belong,” says Marling, but by the end of the album, but you get the feeling that she has no idea where she belongs.