Laura Marling’s fifth studio album Short Movie leaves us gasping for water with its arid, desert isolation. We already know this show is going to be heavy on the most recent album but if we hadn’t expected it, the backdrop lets us know. A dune-filled desert waits behind the empty stage, warning us what to expect.
She appears on stage shortly after 9pm, tiny and alone, beginning in the guise of a horse with ‘Howl’. Her three band members appear individually, silently under cover of darkness and of Marling’s singing. And it’s a voice so distracting that the cover it supplies is effective as a complete blackout. Her resonant voice which startled five albums ago, seeming older than its years is now an ancient goddess, deepened and blackened with experience. A voice coated with tar can be as smooth as one coated with honey, just not as sweet. Sweet is not what Marling’s going for. ‘You Know’, with its tales of falling for a troubadour, is her first chink of lyrical weakness this evening, and even then seems so unlikely. We cannot imagine this robot falling for anything. It’s only at the finish of the fifth song in that she allows a first applause from the audience. The audience do as permitted, one member whispering quickly to her friend “she’s scary!” One imagines Marling would crack a smile at this assessment.
Short Movie is her first album written entirely on electric guitar and she honours that live, with a twang and reverb that recall the infinity of the desert, the backdrop behind her slowly beginning to glow with the dawn, moving into morning and later, to afternoon. ‘I Feel Your Love’ showcases more rock chick attitude than a folk singer has right to have, or ever gets credit for. It’s nearly a Patti Smith moment, with the full band all aglow behind her, a moment that returns throughout the show, when ‘Master Hunter’ rears up off the page, erected as a 3D house by the power of the band and a riot grrrl is released.
The audience break free from their chains on occasion, a lone voice shouting “love you Laura!” is joined by others and she bashfully chimes “love you too…” behind gritted teeth that really seem to say “Don’t be so embarrassing.” A request for “banter” is met with confusion. After a brief translation she lets us know that she doesn’t really do banter. Interaction is so pared back that changes in lighting raise rapturous applause, 5 floodlights shining upwards announcing the beginning of ‘Rambling Man’ casusing whoops of appreciation. Most of us aren’t here for banter though, or a catchy chorus, or understanding. We’re here to observe the living enigma. What we’re looking for is a chink in the armour, some true emotion. Whether we got it or not lies in the opinion of the individual beholder.
The dusty screen image darkens to night, a distant townscape flashes the lights of habitation. The other band members depart, the double bassist asking if he should stay. He is given permission to do so, for now. ‘Goodbye England (Covered In Snow]’ is a younger song than her recent output and the weight lifts off her. It’s coupled with its usual partner in Marling setlists, the Jackson C. Frank cover of ‘Blues Run the Game’ this time with no bassist in the background. The backdrop has shifted. We no longer see a night time desert. No land at all in fact, it’s pure sky as galaxies and constellations confuse us as much as the changeable Marling, idiosyncratic as Joni Mitchell with the flitting between chest, head voice and something more ethereal. It ends, as expected, with ‘Short Movie’. At an hour and a half, if this concert had been a movie, yes it would have been short. But this ain’t Hollywood and our definitions are different. Short, but it encompassed dawn until deepest night and everything in between.
Laura Marling photographed at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin by Olga Kuzmenko