It’s a cold winter’s morning, and my father hands me an album.
“Alex, listen to this, you’ll love it,” he says, hoping deeply that he’ll be able to alter the unvaried taste of my fifteen year old self, who, despite a brief and tearful foray in to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” had ventured very scarcely from the safe haven of chart music. The album he passes over is Laura Marling’s debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim.
“Didn’t she break up with Charlie Fink? Didn’t he write that really sad album about it? She seems evil,” I reply. My father sighs as I glance away and retreat in to my mind, wherein I am crunking with gusto to the indulgent beats of the Pussycat Dolls. A music writer’s most horrible confession.
Some weeks later, feeling vaguely melodramatic over an unrequited crush on a boy in my art class, I yearn for something new, and the album ends up in my CD player. Occasionally, a record comes along at just the right time, aligns itself with your own trajectory with inexplicable convenience; for me, that record is Laura’s.
From the opening chords of ‘Ghosts’, I was hooked. While her later work has astounding beauty and depth both musically and lyrically, there’s something in the youthful clarity of Marling’s first album that lingers long after first listen. Perhaps it really is just the virtue of timing that secures the album’s place in my heart – in many ways, her later work is superior, but the naïve complexity of tracks such as ‘Shine’ and ‘Your Only Doll’ speak volumes. The darkness of her words wound in to the cheerful production of Charlie Fink creates an enduring eeriness, a sense that something untoward always lingers underneath love’s rosy exterior. For a young person wanting to feel attractive, and above all, loved, there’s a bizarre comfort in that notion.
Even beneath the surface happy-clappiness of tracks such as ‘You’re No God’, there’s hidden meanings, a loneliness reserved for adolescence, all enunciated through the dulcet yet sultry tone of Marling’s vocals. So maybe this album is just a stepping stone towards the acoustic glory of Once I Was An Eagle, but it’s an instrumental one. I may not share much with my fifteen year old self anymore, but I can say without fear of soppy exaggeration that Alas, I Cannot Swim nurtured me in ways no contemplative instant messaging conversation could, and for that, I am eternally grateful.