The power of her pessimistic fatalism still rings true a decade on...

Like most precocious talents, Laura Marling’s emergence was greeted with glee by the music industry. She was celebrated as the next ‘big thing’, the saviour of British folk. At 16, she was signed to an indie label and toured the UK. At 17, she moved to a major and released her first of two EPs. By 18, she had a Mercury nominated album under her belt and stardom surely awaited.

Laura Marling was part of a new wave of British folk artists that were staging a mini-revival. Noah and The Whale were her backing band and she sung on their songs. She dated Charlie Fink. Then Marcus Mumford. Then neither of them. Whereas Mumford and Sons embraced the commercial appeal of their music, Marling always seemed scared by hers. Her natural reaction to fame was to turn inward and embrace the esotericism of her roots.

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This inclination for introspection helped set Marling apart. A large part of her initial appeal was not that she was so young, but that she seemed so old. The label ‘wise beyond her years’ was quickly applied. Then ‘voice of a generation’. Then ‘the next Joni Mitchell’. All in the space of 18 months. It’s surprising then that when revisiting Alas, I Cannot Swim how immature some of it can sound.

Musically, the album still sounds as fresh as it did a decade ago, but lyrically it feels like it’s aged considerably. Marling’s words are draped in the kind of pessimistic fatalism that only your teenage years can bring. The gripes are so classic – disappointing lovers, flawed parents and friends that don’t understand. And the fears just as pervasive: fear of herself, fear of hurting others and the fear that things will never change.

When Marling sings: “There’s a life across the river that was meant for me, instead I live my life in constant misery” you just want to shake her and tell her to snap out of it. She was an artist at the peak of her game, a 17-year-old who’d just been signed to a major label and yet she seemed to think that her life was already over.

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It’s this kind of pessimism that can make the album a difficult listen at times. ‘Old Stone’ serves as a warning to potential lovers, ‘Ghosts’ expresses a deep disbelief in romantic love and ‘The Captain and the Hourglass’ muses on our shared impending doom. Even ‘Cross Your Fingers’ – one of the album’s more optimistic sounding songs – is led by the refrain: “Cross your fingers, hold your toes, we’re all gonna die when the building blows”.

On reflection, it feels like this problem is not so much with Marling but with the unfair labels attached to her. She was never the child prodigy with all the answers that she was made out to be. Nor was she the wise swami sitting on the rock spouting mantras. She was a 17-year-old girl with a guitar and a particular flair for words and melodies.

Once you accept this it’s possible to enjoy 'Alas, I Cannot Swim' not for its wisdom but for its clarity. There are parts that can cause you to burst into laughter (‘Failure’) and parts that can bring you to tears (‘Tap at my Window’). When Marling sings: “Inside every man is a heart of sand and you can see it in is face” it’s hard not to recline in awe. It’s the kind of line that you could try to write all your life and never come up with anything close.

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Alas ... is at its best when it tempers its pessimistic tendencies with some optimism. ‘Ghosts’ may be about a history of heartbreak but is tied together into a happy ending; ‘You’re No God’ may start as a reflection on the follies of the introvert but suggests there is hope in the end. Marling even seems to be aware of her own need to look on the brightside, reminding herself: “Don’t cry child, you’ve got so much more to live for”.

'If Alas, I Cannot Swim' has its flaws, they’re part of the same reasons that make Marling a great artist. Her penchant for overanalysis that can manifest itself as immaturity has also allowed her to grow as an artist in way that few of her peers can claim. Most of the the folk revivalists have faded away whereas Marling has stayed the course.

Laura Marling has come a long way in the 10 years since the release of 'Alas, I Cannot Swim' but there will always be a part of me irresistible to this album’s charm.

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'Alas, I Cannot Swim' was released on February 4th, 2008.

Words: Cal Byrne

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