To what degree is it absurdly patronizing that I didn’t take Laura Marling seriously because she’s a 19-year-old British female-folk/pop singer? Let’s call a spade a spade here: if you’re a young artist, you’re afforded little respect. If you’re a young woman, you’re afforded even less. These are entrenched stigmas in critical culture. It doesn’t help Marling’s cause that her songs are anchored on tales of failed or unrequited love. To sum it up: good-looking blonde teenager sings songs about her ex-boyfriend. Play coy all you want, but we both know transcending that persona on a critical level is pretty fucking tough. But we’re not talking about the Jonas Brother or Miley Cyrus here -- we’re talking about Marling, who exudes a unique maturity in interviews; she is comfortable in the spotlight and admirably reticent. She doesn’t play to the camera; she plays to herself. She dismisses compliments about her maturity saying such self-analysis is unnecessary. And truthfully, she has little to nothing to do with her youthful contemporaries, but more with accomplished artists like Leslie Feist or Lykke Li.
So Marling wins points on personality, but points on songwriting? Definitely a few, but there’s plenty of work to do. She sings acceptable, innocuous folk songs. Lead single “Ghost” is Marling at her best with vulnerability on full display. But all the songs showcase this emotion to some degree, and they all basically sound the same: finger-picking guitar, accompanying piano or lead guitar, verse-chorus structure, gentle vocals. It’s tough to pretend like these songs differentiate from one another. Not to say they aren’t enjoyable, none are unbearable and none irritating -- a listening experience not dissimilar to Coldplay -- but ultimately, the listening experience is akin to a 38-minute coffee-shop performance. Alas, I Cannot Swim’s 12-tracks trot by without a change in momentum or character.
Marling’s touted maturity comes from her poetic maneuvering. She is clever and self-deprecating, but not self-pitying. Though unfamiliar hearing a 19-year-old dish existential advice, “don’t cry kid/ you’ve got so much more to live for,” she redeems herself often. It’s hard not to be charmed in the title track (hidden at the end of the disc) when she quips, “there is a boy across the river/ but alas, I cannot swim.” Her vivid imagery of ex-boyfriends is so accomplished that I can hardly believe they were written by someone so young: “At one in the morning the day has not ended/ by two, he is scared that sleep is no friend/ by four, he will drink but cannot feel it.” The best tracks bookend the album with “Ghost” opening and “Your Only Doll” finishing – both admirably earnest moments.
While the Avril Lavigne’s of the world claim to circumvent the “Label-Creates-the-Star” paradigm by maintaining personal autonomy, they reek of artificiality more than the Miley’s. But there is a real feeling Marling has nothing to do with them; she’s a talented bedroom musician being taken along for the corporate ride. Alas, I Cannot Swim is a satisfactory beginning; with character in check, and a knack for lyrics that feel ten times her age, Marling’s young career will hopefully evolve into something musically-original and artistically-engaging.