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Flint’s one-album wonders #6: Laura Marling – Alas, I Cannot Swim



In the sixth part of our venture for artists who only ever struck gold once, our writer pins the cliché hipster badge on his chest and thumps about how everything was better back in the days of a debut album and how nothing has been as good since.

I used to have such love for Laura Marling.Alas+I+Cannot+Swim

Well, I still do to an extent. Her voice is wonderful and enchanting, still as magical as it was the first time I heard it in a Mystery Jets song – she stole my heart in an instant. She has incredible amounts of charisma and she’s often a very charming lyricist. When Alas I Cannot Swim first appeared in 2008 she seemed like a star, a newcomer who would have a bright future ahead of her. Rather, it’s all gone very greyscale. Much like the wildly colourful cover of Alas I Cannot Swim has switched to increasingly minimalist and dark covers, her music has become more and more stripped down and serious as she has matured as an artist. She is now a Serious Folk Artist and gains critical applaud wherever she goes and while I’m happy for her, there’s a great big part of me who yearns back to the days when she was still a naïve, young indie folk artist full of spirit.

The big difference between Marling of five years ago and Marling of today is that where nowadays she prefers to solemnly strum her guitar, on her debut she sounds playful and excited to be making music. You can often hear people describe some music as youthful and that’s really the case with Alas I Cannot Swim. It’s a little bit naïve and bedroom musician -ish, but that’s where it gets its energy from and even at its more serious moments it still sounds giddy and full of life. Something like the merrily skipping “You’re No God” or indie pop tastic “Cross Your Fingers” (or its sea shanty outro “Crawled Out of the Sea”) could simply no longer happen in her albums and that’s a big shame, because alongside Marling’s own inate qualities (her wonderful voice, especially) that’s where a large part of Alas I Cannot Swim’s magic lies in. There’s a sense of playfulness all around the album, a musician’s exploration of the studio environment sounding like a kid left in a toy shop.

This is helped by the fact that even at her young age (she was barely 18 when this was recorded), Marling was a seriously gifted songwriter. She’s brilliant with melodies that stick around forever and gorgeous arrangements that are layered but never cluttered: both something that her more po-faced acoustic strummings since have pushed into the shadows. In fact, the weakest moments of Alas I Cannot Swim as well are the ones which are built solely around the gentle strum of her guitar, with an exception or two. The rest playfully show her songwriting and ability to construct a song, with nearly every song containing a some sort of little additional touch or detail in its arrangement that elevates them just a little bit further, be it overt like the mini-epic finale of “Ghosts” or something subtler like the hypnotic metronome beat of “The Captain and the Hourglass” that slowly and unnoticeably begins to dominate the song.


Another key thing is that out of all of Marling’s albums, Alas I Cannot Swim is the one that’s most defined by her collaborators. The album, and Marling herself, came out of the teeny-tiny London folk revival scene that blossomed in the late 00s and also spawned such acts as Noah and the Whale and Mumford & Sons. Some of the members from those bands feature here as Marling’s backing musicians and it’s especially Noah’s Charlie Fink, Marling’s then-boyfriend, who has a fairly big imprint here, acting as the producer. In many places Alas I Cannot Swim feels like the other half to Noah’s debut released the same year, Peaceful the World Lays Me Down: both utilise a lot of the same people and sounds. The added band dynamics contribute to Marling’s own sound and help to keep the tedium that’s bothered her more straightforward solo works later on away.

It’s dreadful of me to sound so bitter and negative about Marling, because Alas I Cannot Swim is a great album and continues to be a breeze of fresh air even today and ultimately it’s so because of her. The combination of the very romantic and poetic touch that Marling has in her music and lyrics and the young, occasionally almost positively newcomer-ish love for making music is a wonderful thing, especially when coupled with songs that feel heartfelt and strong from the first listen. She averts most of the clichés and overtrodden paths that most young folk-tinged musicians end up doing and creates an album that sounds unique and characteristic to her only. It’s enchanting and altogether so very lovely – the sound of a young, incredibly talented songwriter revealing her talent to the world and charming with a set of excellent songs.

The saddest thing, of course, being that she ends up featuring in an article series like this.

Cross Your Fingers / Crawled Out of the Sea

One Comment leave one →
  1. 16/10/2013 22:01

    Flint, I’ve found this from your Manics blog (which is fantastic, by the way) – and much as I still love Laura Marling, you’ve nailed exactly why I don’t get so excited by her music as I used to. She still has dazzling moments (‘Sophia’, most of all), her songwriting remains a marvel and she has a wonderful voice, but the surprise of her debut has all but deserted her. She’s still so young and I hope she can find a way back to more varied and surprising work.

    (I met her at a record shop when Alas came out, she played at an instore and was utterly bewitching, and in our brief conversation one of the friendliest “stars” I’ve met, Yet I haven’t got Once I Was An Eagle yet. I think your article explains why.)

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