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3.01.2011

Alas, I Cannot Swim


Considering my last post’s inclusion of Bright Eyes, my first review should not come as too much of a surprise: the album Alas I Cannot Swim, by Laura Marling. I’ve been listening to this one for a while, and have just about everything I need from it.
Miss Marling is a young English folk singer. This was her first album, and she was only 18 when she released it in 2008. The album was received quite well, including a nomination for the 2008 Mercury Music Prize (big deal in the UK and Ireland).
The album seems to tell a fairly chronological coming-of-age story. The first half focuses more on naïve young love, while the later part of the album becomes somber. It begins with songs like "Ghosts" and "Tap on my Window," which bring the familiar fleeting 'love at first sight" and summer fling cliches that we all experienced in high-school. It then “grows up” a bit with songs like “Failure” and “Cross Your Fingers,” which recognize the sometimes harsh truths of life (such as "he lost his poetic ethic and his songs were pathetic. He's a failure now"). The album begs a lot of self-reflection using some figurative language and poetic techniques that most successful folk singers also use. The images are often vivid; showy rather than telly (“Lover please do not fall to your knees. It’s not like I believe in everlasting love.” The frustration is made concrete with specific situations followed by a colorful implication).
I have a couple of concerns with the album, such as the blunt mood transition in the middle of the album. Right after the short song “Crawled out of the Sea,” the album takes on a darker atmosphere almost instantly. She goes from blissful and childish love feelings created by songs like “Old Stone” and “Tap at my Window” to the troubling “My Manic and I” and the semi-Gothic “Night Terror.” It isn’t very subtle, and since love seems to be an overarching theme in this, I think it’s important to note that the transition from blissful love to contemptuous familiarity in a relationship is very subtle.
If you were to look at this album like a poem, then "Crawled out of the Sea" would be the shortest line, drawing attention to itself more than any other line and maybe indicating a change. I can appreciate this, but it's nature still seems odd to me.
I also share another concern with the Pitchfork review on this album: how deep can Laura go? It’s been established that she is wise beyond her years, but her next albums have to offer just as much, if not more, profoundly “wise” statements. Will she be able to hold on to her charm in the process?
In an interview with Marling, I remember reading that Marling had no intentional direction for this album, and that she believed she was way too young to even try to have a message. She did say, though, that it was inspired by religion and love, two vague and cliche concepts that I think she uses pretty well. I cannot elaborate more, however, since I presently cannot find the interview. Someone should take the initiative, find it, and then post it here.
Overall, I liked the album. Marling has a charm I cannot deny (I’d like to take her out for coffee sometime), and some of my favorite songs on the album were the very ones I pointed out as possible flaws. Despite her claim that the album had no message, I did catch a fairly linear story being told, and appreciated it. Pitchfork gave the album a 6.8, but I’ll bump it up to 7, mostly because I love Laura, and partly because I don’t deal with decimals.

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