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Laura Marling - Alas, I Cannot Swim

25-07-2008

Laura Marling

Among this week’s nominations for the Mercury Music Prize, the relatively unknown songwriter Laura Marling takes her place alongside the likes of Radiohead and Robert Plant. And it’s no less than she deserves reckons Steve Beauchampe.

In the singer-songwriter sector of the popular music business, there is no dearth of talent, as a glance at the listings for Birmingham’s Glee Club will testify.

Into this field, Laura Marling’s debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, was a frighteningly self-assured and considered intervention, it’s maturity all the more startling given that it’s chief author was just 17 years old when it was written.

Like many good albums, it’s a work that rewards repeated plays. It’s certainly no sugar rush, the record’s flavours and aromas working their way into the listener’s consciousness, revealing its textures slowly and subtly.

Yet what most distinguishes it from a host of the genres’ other contenders is the rich poetic imagery colouring Laura Marling’s lyrics, as she displays a rare understanding of her subjects and their problems.

In an age when it is fashionable for some TV programmes, newspapers and advertisers - and even other female musicians - to castigate and mock male shortcomings, questioning their role in society, Laura Marling offers sympathy and compassion, an appreciation that the men she encounters, both as friends and lovers, are as fragile and racked with self-doubt as she is.

The result is a warm and loving work, one whose arms it is easy to fall into.

Album opener Ghosts tackles the subject of moving on from a failed relationship, as she: "opened up his little heart...read a written warning saying 'I'm still mourning over ghosts that broke my heart before I met you'."

That her male subjects break down is not regarded as a sign of failure: “I am so lost, not at all well”. Later, on the outstanding Night Terror: "I woke up and he was screaming, I'd left him dreaming, I'll roll over and shake him tightly and whisper if they want you well they're going to have to fight me."

In My Manic and I, the madness and paranoia are met with a more sceptical and analytical tone, as Marling describes a mind distorted by drugs and overrun by hopeless romantic notions: "He wants to die in a lake in Geneva. He wants to die where nobody can see him but the beauty of his death will carry on so. I don't believe him. I can't control you, I don't know you well, these are the reasons I think that you're ill."

But Alas, I Cannot Swim travels many roads in delivering it’s thoughts.

On the title track (unannounced on the album sleeve, but which follows a bold, lengthy period of lilting, calming birdsong), Marling warns us to take chances lest we miss out on life’s joys: "There's a boy across the river but alas I cannot swim, I never will get to put my arms around him.", followed perhaps by her design for life: "There is gold across the river but I don't want none.work more, earn more, live more, have more fun".

I suspect that a fair proportion of Laura Marling’s followers are male, finding solace in someone who understands rather than berates and belittles them.

There are reminders of Beth Orton in the softness of Marling’s voice and tenderness of thought, of Kate Bush in her ability to navigate a way around the far corners of the heart while still so young, but while Orton and Bush primarily write from the female perspective, analysing the fragility of womanhood, Laura Marling brings a similar depth to the male psyche.

It’s not the album’s only standpoint, but it’s a significant one, and a substantial achievement at her age.

There are some fine candidates for this year’s Mercury Music prize, Alas, I Cannot Swim is both a prodigious achievement and a meritorious contender.

Here are the other Mercury nominees:

1. Arctic Monkeys
3. Fionn Regan
5. Klaxons
7. Bat for Lashes
9. New Young Pony Club
11. The View

dunno

2. Dizzee Rascal
4. Jamie T
6. The Young Knives
8. Maps
10. Basquiat Strings
12. Amy Winehouse

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