From the first strains of the mysterious, galloping folk-thumper, "Ghosts," to the aching, string-laden lament of "Tap at my Window," there is something so authentic and sui generis about Laura Marling's debut album, that emphemeral attributes like her youth (18 years old at the time of the recording) and acclaim (Mercury Prize finalist) fall away, leaving nothing but a bright, burning ember of an album--an instant classic heralding a unique songwriting talent.
Marling sings in a weary and conspiratorial whisper over muted guitars and dramatic but tastefully arranged strings and percussion. The acoustic set combines the autumnal textures of lo-fi poets like Beirut and Neutral Milk Hotel with the solidly melodic approach of classic Brit-folks like Richard Thompson, tied together by an assured voice that never reaches too hard, although occasionally bursts into a bluesy wail. It is a late-night album that casts a long shadow the morning after.
Spin (p.112) - 3.5 stars out of 5 -- "Marling's voice, rich and tenuous, recalls Joni Mitchell, but her fatalistic screeds -- sung over acoustic guitar, with an occasional burst of percussion or strings -- owe more to Nick Drake and Will Oldham."
Clash (magazine) (p.68) - Ranked #11 in Clash's "The 40 Best Albums of 2008"
The Word (magazine) (p.106) - "Marling's folk constructions are as naked as those of Joan Baez or early Joni Mitchell, and her singing is pacy and urgent -- colourful, confident and distinctly un-waiflike."
Female singer-songwriters are like buses (not necessarily in appearance, you understand, and I'm not naming names): you wait ages and then three turn up at once. We seem to be inundated with them at the moment, and one who deserves the spotlight but isn't getting it so much (because she hasn't been seen shooting her mouth off in public or falling out of nightclubs) is Laura Marling. Her debut "Alas, I Cannot Swim" has also been somewhat overlooked because it is not in a pop/r'n'b idiom and she doesn't sing about, well, falling out of nightclubs. She appears to draw inspiration from an earlier generation of folk-rock singers, the likes of Joni Mitchell, Melanie, Jacqui McShee (of Pentangle), Linda Thompson etc.
The subject matter of her songs is a long way removed from the infatuations of (supposedly) hip urbanites trying to buy tequila at 4.00 a.m. too. Her lyrics sound rooted in the land, influenced more by Thomas Hardy or, in modern terms, Graham Swift than by the usual Camden Town obsessions. For someone who is still a teenager she displays a very mature take on difficult subjects such as parental strife, mental illness, death. God only knows what she might have to say by the time she's twenty-five. This is not to say the album is miserable. It is quite introspective, quite melancholy, but not all sad. "You're No God" and "My Manic and I" have an austere humour and light, lilting style. "Cross Your Fingers" has an almost nursery rhyme feel. And like many nursery rhymes, if you think about it, the words are much darker than the tune. The deft, basic acoustic folk backing is augmented here and there by strings and accordion.
So "Alas, I Cannot Swim" is not a party record. You might not play it getting ready to go out on Saturday night. But you might when you get home at whatever time on Sunday. And sitting at home any time, with a malt whisky, not an alcopop.