In 2013 Laura Marling talked about completely retiring from the music industry. She was 23 and her feet hadn’t touched the ground since her astonishingly self-possessed debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, was released in 2008. Three albums later she was being hailed as the greatest songwriter of her generation. But she was completely exhausted and took off for America, where she did indeed give up music for a while. For two years she wandered and applied for jobs in coffee shops. She hung out with all sorts of people, including cult members, addicts, hippies and professional vagrants.
When Marling picked up her guitar again, the queen of the nu-folk scene channelled that strange and desperate energy by going electric. It’s a really powerful evolution. It truly takes a rare rock guitarist to remind us that electricity is a potentially dangerous natural force but Marling’s new sound evokes the strange dark thrill of low skies before a storm. At times it sounds more like she’s plugged her guitar into a brooding thunder cloud than a man-made socket.
That said, Short Movie opens with an acoustic-led track. Warrior finds Marling shaking a man off her back: “I can’t be your horse any more,” she states. While lyrics about ancient priestesses, magic oranges and noble paths are the folksiest on the record, the note of fierce independence set the tone. She’s brazenly confrontational, railing against Californian positive-thinking on Don’t Let Me Bring You Down. America’s landscape seems to give her the release its culture frustrates: she sings of wolves and a sun that “kicks the moon off the mountain” on the swirling Howl.
There’s a spattering of what her temporary countrymen would call cuss words and Marling loads each with fantastic anger and contempt. They’re never unnecessary.
And no doubts about this: Short Movie is a masterpiece.