It Holds Up: Laura Marling – ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’

Posted: by The Editor

There’s a certain gentleness that Laura Marling brings to the table on Alas I Cannot Swim. On her debut LP, she brings forth lighthearted instrumentals with lyrics that are carefully observant about love. The singer-songwriting creates a unique balance on how to approach topics of love and heartbreak while delivering a blend of instruments that seek to smooth out these lyrical topics. It’s impressive given that Marling was just 17 when this album was recorded. At such a young age she provides such wisdom, emotion, and care to the music she wrote on this record. 

The first track off this record titled “Ghosts” opens with a finger-picking guitar and then unravels into more instrumentals such as a xylophone as the track progresses. Marling’s lyrics are in the typical style of a singer-songwriter; narrative. She begins detailing a man who is holding pictures saying “These are just ghosts who broke my heart before I met you.” Explaining how the man is still mourning one of the “ghosts.” Once the track hits the chorus, the instrumentals die down to reveal a nice harmony of the lyrics “lover please do not/fall to your knees/it’s not/like I believe in everlasting love.” After the first introduction of the chorus a piano gets introduced as well as some more of the vocal harmonies. It’s interesting how the instrumentals nearly disappear during the chorus. It’s metaphorical in a sense, it’s almost like Marling is giving this advice in an endearing yet fragile way to her lover to reassure that the time they have together will not last. The chorus repeats itself with a faster tempo and more instrumentals towards the end of the track. The lyrics “it’s not like I believe in everlasting love” are of the time. The breaking of the stereotype that love is meant to be forever shows Marling’s deep understanding of her opinions on love in contemporary times. “Ghosts” showcases the carefulness that Marling has towards love while also being an active participant. 

A track that really strikes me off this record is “My Manic and I” Lyrically dense and instrumentally soft, Marling yet again utilizes a narrative approach. It’s a harrowing tale of what seems to be a lover who is his own worst enemy and the effects it has on Marling. The delivery of the lyrics are in an almost rambling style. They build on each other, one after another and only slow down a bit with the lyrics “I can’t control you I don’t know you well/These are the reasons I think that you’re ill” which lends to a small period in the song of realization or admittance. Yet right after these lyrics are introduced in the song, the tempo picks back up, adding additional instrumentals. Building more and more tension both in the lyrics, vocal delivery and instrumentals to create this sense of chaos or drama. As the track progresses the lyrics mentioned before change to “I hardly know you I think I can tell/These are the reasons I think we’re ill/I hardly know you I think I can tell/These are the reasons I think that I’m ill” It’s difficult to digest this shift from “I can’t control you” to “I hardly know you” showing us this narrative distance in these two lovers. The track does an excellent job in supplementing the momentum and meaning of the lyrics with the tempo and addition of more instruments as the track progresses. It becomes painful towards the end as Marling’s vocals become a little bit more intense towards the end of the track. Displaying that balance that Marling does so well in smoothing out the density of the lyrics with the stripped back instrumentals. 

The track directly after that “Night Terrors” continues to showcase how well Marling is able to cut through some very meaningful and difficult lyrics with strings and percussion that are raw in nature. It’s a great transition from the previous track as it seems to include the same lover battling with as the track’s title suggests, night terrors. The lyrics detailing how Marling is trying to help this person by telling them “If they want you, oh you’re going to have to fight me.” The torment that Marling details through her lyrics by trying to help this person out shows the sacrifice and pain that she needs to fight through for her lover. The relationship she builds through these two tracks is heart wrenching. It hurts to listen to the tales of the lover’s behavior and how it affects Marling in return. Yet it becomes easier to digest among the more raw and layered instrumentals and vocal harmonies. Cutting through the lyrics to make it more palatable. 

The final track is the lightest of all the tracks on the record. “Your Only Doll (Dora)” features birds chirping in the background, only Marling’s guitar and vocals in the beginning of the track. The intensity of the guitar builds throughout the track. Again, Marling’s signature narrative style of lyrics are featured. Opening with a narrative about having “poison in my veins” and coming back home to her owner, who screams at her for her tardiness. The chorus throughout the track repeats “And what can you do with a girl if refuses to be mine?” Again continuing this horrific relationship that she builds throughout the album. The instrumentals yet again include some great background harmonies, strings and piano. They’re delicate in supplementing this breakage described in the lyrics. The first part of the track concludes with a lyric “And you’ve broken your only doll” that signifies the end of this narrative of this relationship that Marling has been telling us through her music. As the track ends it shifts to birds chirping and then moves into the second part of the track. This part lyrically connects the opportunities for happiness but the choice to “work more, earn more, live more, have more fun” and ends with Laura’s laugh. It wraps up the album beautifully by the defeat of the relationship and the opportunity for happiness depicted at the very end of the track. 

Alas I Cannot Swim is masterful in its depiction of this hurtful relationship and the sacrifices the protagonists make in order to get through it. Yet the instrumentals cut through the deep despair in the lyrics to balance everything out. At age 17 it is impressive to see such wisdom and carefulness in how Marling chooses to write about such harsh topics and narratives. She takes on a typical style of songwriting that we see in masters such as Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan with how they are so careful with their lyricism and intent while making beautiful harmonies with their raw instrumentals. Marling takes this into the contemporary sphere by creating a conversation around topics that are not commonly discussed such as the sacrifices and hardships some relationships entail. Alas I Cannot Swim holds up by telling a tale of brokenness in such a balanced and vulnerable way that makes it accessible and timeless. Marling’s instrumentals supplement the density of the narrative very well and create this musical collection of stories that encapsulates the rawness of love. 

Written by Sarah Knoll

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