The refrain ‘It’s a short fucking movie, man’, which gives Laura Marling‘s fifth album its title, was apparently the mantra uttered by a self-described shaman the singer met at random in northern California. Exactly what he meant by that is unclear: perhaps it was intended as a comment on mortality and fate, the ephemeral nature of lives lived by players responding to external scripts and directions. In any case, Marling found inspiration enough in it to use it as the basis for the rich, frank title track.
Much of Marling’s adult life to date has been lived in response to the success of her debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, recorded when she was 17. The backstory behind Short Movie is her decision to step outside the cycle of recording and touring that has occupied her since then and to travel around the United States by herself. It would be unfair to say she was previously unworldly – her previous four albums are powerful evidence against that – but there is a strong case to be made that this is her first truly mature album, deeper in its thematic influences and in its ambition.
Musically it is richer, with more deviation from the traditional acoustic singer-songwriter template than Marling has made before. The swirling background rush that whirrs away behind many of the songs, sounding sometimes like a seashore, at other times like a synthesiser masquerading as a zither, is apparently an acoustic guitar, played with a bow and put through a distortion pedal. Marling has revealed in an interview that this sound is in fact present the whole way through the album, though at times it is inaudible; it’s like the white background noise of everyday life, often drowned out by more tangible sounds.
The album’s release has been precursed by talk of a new direction, and in particular that fact that Marling has ‘gone electric’. Comparisons with Bob Dylan in 1965 inevitably ensue, but this is unlikely to have fans booing. Yes, there is more use of electric guitar, and songs like the single False Hope sound bigger, beefier and a little bit poppier when compared to the delicate folk that Marling made her name with, but this is not a radical departure. Also, let’s bear in mind that Dylan at Newport was 50 years ago: in 2015 Mumford And Sons can promise that their new album will be entirely devoid of banjos and receive barely a batted eyelid in response.
It’s natural that a musician will want to explore new ideas and influences as their career matures, and Short Movie finds Marling doing just that. In the US, she spent much of her time in California, and she has tuned in to a certain kind of West Coast mysticism, with a growing interest in spiritualism, the tarot and the occult. The Chilean filmmaker and guru Alejandro Jodorowsky is another influence, with the song Gurdjieff’s Daughter inspired by the peculiar sex Jodorowsky described having with the daughter of the Armenian spiritualist George Gurdjieff.
But there is more to Short Movie’s context than odd details, avant garde references and the philosophy of hippy shamans. Marling has long been able to trace a musical lineage back to heavyweights like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and this is cemented here. Now it’s not just that she is following in the footsteps of their music; in California she seems to have become more attuned to the Laurel Canyon scene that they inhabited. There is something hard to pin down yet impossible to get away from in the music generated by that scene, and Marling pulls off a similar feeling here.