Emerging from Laura Marling’s powerful, immersive performance at the Olympia Theatre, one fan can be heard lamenting, even criticising the absence of ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ from the show’s setlist.
The album in question, the singer’s debut, was penned at the tender age of 17. It’s airy, vulnerable folk sound is a far cry from the jagged, confident, electrified tone of 2015’s ‘Short Movie’, her fifth full-length release, coming in just her 26th year.
Fans of the singer have borne witness to her growth from adolescence to maturity through her short but prolific career, and it is certainly true that a marked difference can be seen in her personality between her first album and her most recent.
Perhaps as a reaction to her introduction to pop/folk culture at such a young age, Marling’s shell had hardened significantly by the time her sophomore release, ‘I Speak Because I Can’ came about. Her long blonde locks were dyed black; she sung less about the object of her affections and more about herself; her desire to be heard, her place as a woman. It’s opening track, Devil’s Spoke would announce this new, hardened Laura Marling to the world, along with a bassier, open-tuned guitar sound that would permeate the succeeding records.
The shift in tone between these two albums is by far and away the most marked in her career, and the growth seen throughout the rest of her catalogue has been natural and gradual, as growing up tends to be. Marling truly found her sound and her place as a singer/songwriter on her second album.
While the simple, timeless folk music of her debut is undoubtedly gorgeous and deserves its place in folk music lore, it is understandable that for her playing it live may feel like reading her own diary aloud on stage; perhaps cringing at her own vulnerability and naivety, both in sound and in voice.
So when Laura Marling steps onto the stage, some fans are perhaps wondering where the shy, terrified girl who played New Romantic on Jools Holland all those years ago had gone, replaced by this short-haired, jagged, confidence-exuding presence. The simple answer is that here she is, five albums, eight years and many positive and negative experiences later. Laura Marling; the songwriter, the woman, the adult.
Opening with two acoustic tracks from her latest release, Howl and Walk Alone, she captivates attention immediately. There is little more satisfying than watching a truly impeccably talented guitarist and singer doing their thing with the right levels of emotion and concentration; placing themselves inside the song, and silencing a chatty audience in the process.
However, as she meanders into a flawless long-play performance of the first few tracks of ‘Once I was An Eagle’(which blend into each other seamlessly), one restless audience member begins a heckle that she would utter several times throughout the remainder of the show, calling for Marling to ‘play Sophia!’.
Perhaps in her younger, more vulnerable years this would have thrown the singer off, but the hardened Marling is evidently no longer one to shy away from confrontation, and after two or three of the obnoxious utterances she breaks her silence, announcing that it was ‘becoming very tiresome very quickly’, and proceeding to play her show as she had intended. And it is emphatically that; her show.
So strong is the presence and personality in her songs and the manner in which she immerses herself into the performances that there is little need for patter in between songs, perhaps for fear of breaking the intensity. When she does oblige she jokes amiably with the audience, but does not divulge in the type of self-conscious, endearing story-telling that she has been known to in the past.
She strikes a good balance between playing what she wants to play and what she knows the crowd have come to hear, getting through a good chunk of her new album and touching hits such as the incredible ballad Rambling Man to rapturous applause from the audience.
She clearly has a keen understanding of the mindset of her fans. When she finally does play Sophia, she does so with feigned begrudgery; joking that she is tempted to play an eschewed version, playing on the all too frequent frustration for fans when the musician plays a barely recognisable rendition of one of their hits (see Bob Dylan). She knows they want to hear it as they heard it originally, and she happily obliges.
After an (almost!) all-encompassing show in which she covered a lot of the hallowed ground of her back catalogue and also gave fans an immersive insight into the sound of her new album, Marling closes out the show with Short Movie, giving the ‘no encore’ preamble beforehand. Fans who have been to her live shows have come to expect this, and, such is the consistency of her performances down the years, they could be forgiven for also expecting a flawless, emotive show as well.
While her failure to play songs from her debut may leave some fans unhappy, those that have been paying attention will forgive her, and feel satisfied to have seen Laura Marling in her current, grown-up form, at the peak of her powers.