Reading-based songstress Laura Marling has been likened to veteran folksters Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. Despite such hyperbolic accolades, her entry into the crowded world of young female singer-songwriters has been remarkably hushed and wonderfully organic. Having started writing songs at the age of 15, Marling's success has been achieved not by shouting, but by whispering her way through the ranks. Perhaps because of her youth--she turned 18 just before releasing this Alas, I Cannot Swim--Marling has an understated yet accomplished manner that just doesn't grate like some of her peers. Plus her songs are good--very good. Backed by imaginative arrangements from leftfield acoustic outfit Noah and the Whale, the tracks here are often coyly charming, though far from naïve. Marling digs impressively deep into all kinds of universal topics, from religion and parents to love and romance. Lead single "Ghosts" introduced to many her soft, alluring vocal style, and other songs here share the same sense of intimacy, even if they differ thematically and musically. Things are kept simple throughout (think acoustic strums and a homespun delivery), but there are subtle and beautiful contrasts throughout; the Beirut-esque carnival aura of "Crawled out of the Sea" and the brooding "Night Terror", for example, which provide darker counterpoints to airier fare like the folksy title track and the compelling "My Manic & I". Disarming yet deep, provocative yet peaceful, Alas places Marling head and shoulders above the bawlers and wailers. --Paul Sullivan
Review by Stewart Mason
Due to her youth (16 when she first hit Myspace, 17 when signed to an imprint of EMI, and 18 when her debut album came out), perky-cute looks and extremely British diction, singer/songwriter Laura Marling got a lot of comparisons to Lily Allen in her early buzz, but the quietly compelling Alas I Cannot Swim is not at all a frothy pop confection. A folk-tinged AAA pop record based on Marling's alluringly husky voice and graceful acoustic guitar, Alas I Cannot Swim would be more aptly compared to the likes of Feist, Keren Ann, or Regina Spektor. (In the album's press kit, Marling reveals her primary influence to be Bonnie "Prince" Billy, which also seems appropriate.) Although not to draw too forbidding a comparison, opening track and first single "Ghosts" is most strongly reminiscent of Joni Mitchell circa For the Roses, both in Marling's expressive vocal phrasing and the expert shifts in the arrangement between solo acoustic passages and full-band sections, not to mention an excellently deployed string section. That old-school '70s singer/songwriter vibe predominates throughout the album, in fact. There's one straight-up pop song here, the deceptively chipper-sounding "Cross Your Fingers" ("...hold your toes/We're all gonna die when the building blows" continues the sweetly sung chorus), but aside from that, Alas I Cannot Swim is the kind of album that takes a couple of listens for its charms to completely sink in. Rather than swath every track in prominent, ear-grabbing hooks, Marling and producer Charlie Fink choose to keep the decorations off in the distance on songs like "The Captain and Hourglass," where swells of pedal steel stay buried deep in the mix under Marling's hypnotic guitar line and quietly insistent vocals. There's every chance that Laura Marling will get lost in the shuffle as the unexpected commercial success of Feist's The Reminder leads major labels to unleash hordes of similarly talented female singer/songwriters, but Alas I Cannot Swim is far better than the average coffee house-endorsed girly pop.
Pitchfork Review :
The fact that bracing Brit-folk singer/songwriter Laura Marling was just 17 when she recorded the Mercury Prize-nominated Alas, I Cannot Swim has become every much the bit of biographical shorthand as mentioning Lily Allen's famous dad or Robyn's late-90s U.S. stardom. It may seem at first unfair given how many pubescent rockers come down the pike, but artists who mine a folkier, more personal vein, like Marling or Conor Oberst or Patrick Wolf, do tend to open themselves up to greater scrutiny-- yet are also more readily rewarded with touts of prodigal genius. Such clearly heard, lyric-driven music almost can't help but assume an aim towards profundity regardless of its actual goals. When such striving stumbles, we call it "precociousness" and assume the neophyte will continue to hone his or her introspective powers with each passing year. But is this always a good thing, to encourage a young artist of deep feeling to continue burrowing more deeply?
The thing I worry about with Marling is that she's already being heralded for evincing wisdom beyond her years-- what happens when the years catch up? Will she feel compelled to keep turning more and more starkly inward, and sacrifice her charm in the process? Lyrically, Alas is a sober document, but its best songs don't demand an abundance of explication or poetics to work their sad-eyed magic. Liking Marling best when she keeps things at the level of teenage romance may sound reductive, but young love is one of pop's bedrocks, and clearly the young songstress can tap into reservoirs of immediacy that a team of balding middle-aged guys crafting expert teen-pop chart-toppers can't as easily manage.
As a vocalist Marling may evoke the grown-up weariness of Beth Orton, but the superior first half of Alas is consumed with depictions of decidedly youthful ardor, whether it's the young man in "Ghosts" who "went crazy at 19" from his inability to escape the memory of past loves, or the general teenage fatalism conveyed in "Old Stone" and its refrain, "10,000 years and you're still on your own." Marling flashes wit in "Failure" in her realization that a once-worshipped rock singer's "songs were pathetic," and the accompanying music of the album's first act admirably matches her heart's cynical but still intense effusions, whether it be the tense gallop of "Ghosts", the swelling melancholy strings of "Tap at My Window" or the genuine electric momentum of "You're No God".
Almost perceptibly "maturing" before our ears, however, Marling spends much of the record's second half mired in vague symbolism and unfortunate logorrhea, with her music frequently seeming to grind to a halt from the strain. That's not to say Marling lacks the facility to put across complex thoughts and feelings, only that she needn't confuse wordiness with depth, which is just the sort of thinking that leads to groaners like "the gods that he believes never fail to amaze me" or "the sky and I, we've had our fights, and I'm coming 'round to rain," which damn near ruins the otherwise lovely and gripping "The Captain and the Hourglass".
It was a mistake for Marling not to find a place on Alas for "New Romantic", a song from an earlier EP that ended up lending two thoroughly inferior tracks to her debut long-player. Instead of the gothic stiltedness of "Night Terror" (which has nothing to do with cobras, sorry), "New Romantic" finds Marling bemoaning her "lonesome gait," but also worrying about things like being thin and turning into her mother in far more pragmatic terms while reminding us (and herself) that "I'm still pretty young." Hopefully, 90s baby Marling will remember there's nothing wrong with this assertion for at least a good little while.
— Joshua Love, August 28, 2008