It was of course Wings (the band The Beatles could have been) who sang of being a band on the run, but they certainly weren’t the only ones, plenty of acts have decided a bit of relocation might help them find their new sound.
The Beatles famously recorded much of The White Album on a trip to Rishikesh in Northern India to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation training session at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Though there is perhaps a question how much spirituality shows up in tracks like Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, apparently inspired by seeing Monkeys mating, or Rocky Raccoon, co-written by Donovan and inspired not by India but by a Bob Dylan album they happened upon in India.
David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop all delved into Berlin’s scene for inspiration, even if both Bowie & Iggy moved their initially to try and get over their respective drug addictions. Lou Reed’s take on the city was a bit less of an advertisement for the cities addiction programmes, playing out as a tragic rock opera which tells the tale of a doomed couple, facing up to issues of drug use, prostitution, depression, domestic violence and ultimately suicide. We’re guessing it’s not top of the Berlin tourist boards city soundtracks!
One of the most common routes taken by bands looking to find their new sound in a new town, is to head over to America. Everyone from The Rolling Stones to The Thrills has upped and moved to the US to inspire and record new albums, and with many acts like Owl John, Allo Darlin’ and The Wave Pictures taking inspiration from stateside visits in recent years, it’s one trade route that is showing no signs of drying up anytime soon.
LAURA MARLING – SHORT MOVIE
Laura Marling is still only 25, sure it’s just a number but it’s a remarkable one. This album, Short Movie, is her fifth full length album. The common adage peddled regularly at Laura is that she’s an “old soul” as if somehow her prodigious guitar playing and appreciation of folk music past and present somehow makes her world wise. Certainly she’s achieved an awful lot for someone her age, and her music possesses both a depth and consistency often not seen in artists until much later in their career, but in the build up to Short Movie she’s been quick to downplay such assumptions.
“I’ve always been told that I’m an old soul. And I’m not. I just have a deep voice and a stern face. I am actually young. I hadn’t had chance to stop and think about that before.”
Following the release, success and intense touring of her fourth album, the near universally acclaimed Once I Was An Eagle, Laura’s original plan was to immediately return to the studio. A decision made, as she puts it, from her own stubbornness. Whilst this approach had previously turned Laura from an unknown 17 year old songwriter, to one of the most revered solo artists on the planet, this time it did not. Not long into the sessions, they were abandoned, the songs later to be scrapped. After eight years of being Laura Marling recording artist, it was time for Laura to just be herself, and to find her place in the world, not as an artist but as a person.
So she took six months off, she applied to poetry courses, she immersed herself into the literature of Rainer Maria Rilke, Chris Kraus and Alejandro Jodorowsky, she became obsessed with getting educated. She toured the US alone, picking up friends and a boy along the way, she moved to Los Angeles, parted company with the boy and immersed herself into the community of LA. She gave up romantic notions and shed the naivety of youth, she began for the first time in her life not to crave isolation, but to understand why people fear loneliness, perhaps began to understand people in general. As dramatic as this may all sound, it was perhaps the act of someone who was ripped out of a normal life a littler earlier than she was quite ready to be, this was probably just Laura doing the growing up most of us are forced into by the mundane nature of living a normal life.
What affect did this all have on her musical output? Returning to the studio after such a formative period was always going to be different, and perhaps noting that, Laura decided to do things differently. Much has been made of her “plugging in” for this record, and yes there’s more electric guitar than on previous recordings, apparently courtesy of only bringing her father’s cherry-red Gibson Electric Guitar with her to Los Angeles, but probably the more telling decision was that she would produce this record herself, whilst her previous three albums were recorded by the legendary Ethan Johns, for this record she decided to take control more than ever, and the change in sound is notable. Ethan’s production was fabulous, but it was very crisp and very clean; there’s little doubt the appeal of working with Ryan Adams‘ producer drew Laura to Ethan and it worked spectacularly, but on an album the deal openly with transformation and self discovery, it’s fitting that Laura takes on the reigns, and the slightly more ramshackle production, the slightly more rough around the edges feel, fits well with the production.
Those worrying that this might be some sort of bedroom produced lo-fi experiment though can certainly rest easy, the same attention to detail and subtle appreciation of the nuances of production and instrumentation from Laura’s previous work remains. Indeed the subtle, sophisticated songwriting has perhaps always made Laura something of a conundrum, it’s impossible not to admire the clever touches, the almost jazzy intro to Don’t Let Me Bring You Down, the pulses of organ and washes of cello on Easy, even the string scratches on How Can I, but it can be harder to love her music, there’s something about things that are too perfect that turns music fans off, we like a few flaws with our beauty, a little shade to make the light seem more perfect. Like all her previous output though it’s an album that rewards repeat listens, whilst at first it can feel like being caught in a pleasantly warm summer downpour, later the darker, more nuanced side of the music is a beauty that slowly unfurls itself and burrows into your psyche.
The progression of her music is perhaps equally slow to come to the listener, on first listen it feels like just another Laura Marling album, sure she’s plugged in her guitar a couple of times, the odd bit gets bit rockier but it’s basically the same sort of thing right? Well yes and no, there’s some classic Laura Marling moments, the beautifully nimble, fluttering finger picking of the acoustic guitar in Easy, recalls one of her career highlights, the gorgeous Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) from I Speak Because I Can, the swirling harmonium gives Howl a very similar mood to those explored on A Creature I Don’t Know, but look elsewhere and you’ll find plenty of new tricks. Divine is a sun-coated, acoustic-pop track with shades of Jenny Lewis or Ryan Adams, Warrior backs the acoustic guitar, with an almost psychedelic wash of distant noises, it might lyrically reference the band America, but musically it’s also very Americana and wouldn’t sound out of place on the last Fleet Foxes record. The departure is probably never more clear than on False Hope, it starts life with a distorted tape sound, before muted strums of jangling electric guitar back her always impressive vocal but it’s when the straight rock drums kick in and lift the second verse it sounds like Midlake or Horse Thief, she even allows her normally crisp vocal to reach for notes a little beyond her range, showing a rare fragility and the whole thing is as far removed from her native London as you’d imagine she felt alone in Los Angeles.
Lyrically too it feels like an adventurous record, it plays out like the musical equivalent of a coming of age film. It tackles all the same topics we all must experience in the process of growing up, Laura muses on the topics that define youth, religion, love, and most of all finding your place amongst the people who walk this planet we call Earth. On the albums title track, probably the closest she’s ever got to an uptempo rock song, she questions her role “I got up in the world today and wondered who it was I could save? Who do you think are? Just a girl that can play guitar.” Indeed throughout the album she questions whether she truly belongs anywhere, on Don’t Let Me Bring You Down she recalls living in LA as an unknown “living here is a game I don’t know how to play, are you really not anybody until someone knows your name?” Whilst on False Hope, she’s in an apartment kept up for endless sleepless nights by those living their lives around her own, lonely apartment she notes “is it still okay that I don’t know how to be alone” and latterly “there’s a party uptown but I just don’t feel like o belong at all” certainly this period away from the comfort of London seems to have left her lonely and thoughtful, perhaps isolation isn’t all we dream of after all.
Elsewhere on the album she explores her favourite topic, love and her inability to maintain it. She starts Walk Alone recalling a conversation with a past squeeze “I think you were wrong, you said I can’t love” she recalls how she’s lost the joys of simply walking alone before concluding “I was born to love, I was put on this earth, I was doing fine without it.” On the track How Can I, we find her “stepping out of line” but still reverting to type as she laments “it should have been you, but it was anyone, I never miss my chance to run”, a topic she also visits on the moody and atmospheric Howl as she pleads with a lover to stick with her as she remembers how he was “holding my chest like I’m a wild horse, about to run away scared.” Between all the moments of insecurity and fleeing from affection, there’s the occasional moment of happiness or at least contentment, on the frankly lovely Divine, Laura sings “you’re fine, I’m yours and you’re mine. It’s divine.” It’s a lovely moment of resolution in album of questions and uncertainty.
She leaves the best to last until the final track, Worship, over the crackling sound of analogue recording equipment, her ever impressive guitar work winds with a perfect sense of melancholy as she sings “we’re young and lost and need something to put our hopes up.” Like Kurt Vile the whole thing is like a gentle unravelling of gorgeous sketches of guitar lines, by the time it comes to the outro it’s just a truly beautiful thing, it feels like a Bon Iver track if he recorded in the sunshine, her voice just perfectly sad and raw and deeply honest “sit down and worship me, devote your life to peace and breathe.”
It’s yet another step in the career of Laura Marling, it’s not that it’s the best record of her career, it’s just another perfectly formed, beautifully produced collection of excellent songs. There’s still a distance to her, you still feel there’s more to come, more emotional connection, more growing up to do perhaps, but with each album she just feels more like a true artist. There now seems like nothing can stop her from becoming the artist she was born to be, a talent entirely fulfilling her potential, and she’s still only 25.
Short Movie is out now via Virgin Records (UK/EU) & Ribbon Music (US) – Laura Marling tours the UK throughout April and the start of May.