In “Ghosts,” the opening track of Laura Marling’s debut LP, the British songstress pleads, “Lover, please, do not fall to your knees/ It’s not like I believe in everlasting love.” She says it in response to a guy who’s still getting over the girls (“ghosts”) who broke his heart. Alas, I Cannot Swim has plenty of songs about past loves — comforting them (“Failure”), pushing them away (“Old Stone”) or being haunted by them (“Shine”). Written when she was just 16, these songs are intensely emotional; but you won’t find any melodrama or teen angst here.
Marling sings in an alto tone that’s soft, unpretentious and comforting. She plays acoustic guitar backed by strings, piano, light percussion and, occasionally, horns and glockenspiels; the instrumentals are glossy, but her words are always, rightfully, at the forefront.
Jabs at religion and death introduce the gifted songwriter as an old soul, similar to fellow British folkies and friends Noah and the Whale, Mumford & Sons and Johnny Flynn. (NATW frontman Charlie Fink was dating Marling when he produced this record, and later wrote his band’s LP The First Days of Spring about their breakup.) But ultimately, Alas, I Cannot Swim is youthful with an optimistic outlook: In the lively coming-of-age track “You’re No God,” Marling sings, “We will learn to feel quite clean in this new skin that we have grown/ because our young and healthy bones would never lead us astray.”