Alas I Cannot Swim
Virgin Records, 2008
REVIEW BY: Jono Russell
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/27/2009
I must admit to approaching Laura Marling's Alas I Cannot Swim a tad reluctantly. After all, does the world really need another British female singer-songwriter? There's already enough of those (often intoxicated and stumbling out of a Camden club) to fill the pages of London's free papers, day after day.
Marling should not be lumped into a category alongside the Allen’s and Nash’s of the world, however. The MySpace route to a record deal and living in London is where the similarities should end, as Marling boasts a unique brand of folk-pop that oozes talent in volumes not matched elsewhere.
Take “Ghosts” for example, the opening -- and perhaps best -- track of the album. This delicate gem details a partner so haunted by ex-lovers that "he went crazy at nineteen.” "Lover please, do not / Fall to your knees / It's not like I believe in / Everlasting love," offers Marling in response.
The arrangement of strings, piano and male backing vocals make for a memorable track that sets an impossibly high standard for the remainder of the album. Yet for the most part, it manages to live up to expectations.
It's this sort of lyrical maturity that led to me being floored when I discovered her year of birth: 1990. One must assume the majority of these songs were written before even her 18th birthday, and yet they canvass topics usually reserved for songwriters well past adolescence.
While Lily Allen is busy using pop as a method of mocking past boyfriends (the song “Not Big,” as the name implies, isn't all that complimentary to a former flame), Marling is more interested in tackling faith, breakdowns and death.
But don't get the idea that these twelve cuts (plus the title track, tacked on as a bonus) are depressing. She has classed herself as an optimistic realist and that sounds appropriate. Lines such as "Cross your fingers / Hold your toes/We're all going to die when the building blows” on the surprisingly upbeat “Cross Your Fingers” are balanced with glimpses of redemption.
Another high point is “Tap At My Window,” a song based on the line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” from a Philip Larkin poem. As with much of the album, the sweetness of the vocals and acoustic guitar are in stark contrast to the lyrics. Even the line "I cannot forgive you for bringing me up this way" sounds relatively harmless, until you realize what's actually being said.
Some of the credit must go to producer Charlie Fink, frontman of Noah And The Whale (a band Laura was once part of). As brilliant as Marling's songwriting is, the polished arrangements -- often containing strings and piano -- complement her captivating voice and guitar work perfectly.
It's hard to find the flaws in this album because, quite frankly, there aren't many. The below par “Shine” perhaps could have been culled -- especially considering an earlier single, “New Romantic,” is strangely absent.
That is a minor complaint in what is otherwise a memorable debut from an immensely promising artist. If Marling is dealing with heavy subject matters with such aplomb at age eighteen, her future is incredibly bright. Providing, of course, she stays away from those Camden clubs.
Alas, I discovered this album just one week after compiling my favorites from 2008 list. Had that not been the case, the Mercury-nominated Alas I Cannot Swim would have, without a doubt, featured prominently.