There are many things Laura Marling is, and is staggeringly good at: writer, singer, guitarist, for a start. You could add fast developing skill as a filmmaker in a few years too, and along with a recent take-up of clarinet, you just know there’s a book or two in her.
One thing that has not been evident across her seven albums – the last one of which appeared between the first LUMP album and this, the second she’s made with collaborator Mike Lindsay – is Marling as playful.
But the permanently capitalised LUMP, where Lindsay, of the regularly fascinating electro-folk outfit, Tunng, writes the music, and Marling contributes melodies and lyrics, is at its core, a bundle of playfulness.
Don’t mistake that word for jokey though. Instead, think of it as a way to loosen bounds and formalities of their regular jobs, whether it is Marling semi-improvising lyrics that work in the abstruse as much as the abstract, Lindsay fashioning modern and venerable electronic sounds into minimalist organics that at times remind me of The Beta Band, or the way that there is a sneaky pop lure buried within so many of these songs the further you go in.
(And just for a final bit of fun, ending this album as they did with the first, with Marling reading the album credits in quasi-Siri mode over a meditative sound melange.)
The key to it all is a fluidity of shape and rhythm. There is no one form for LUMP songs, which can be sinuous and malleable, mechanical and prescriptive, quiet and out of step. This is of course a failing if they’re trying to get on radio, where certainty is preferred, and a genuine entertainment for those of us quite happy to be surprised.
Lindsay’s preference for shifting those rhythms and time signatures between and within songs (see for example the way the naggingly catchy Climb Every Wall moves in and out of its two modes of train travel and diverging cul-de-sac) and Marling’s comfort with stretching her voice into precarious areas (for example, Paradise takes both psych and traditional folk to their edges) have the joy of experimentation about them, without the tedium of showboating.
When a glam guitar enters after some ping-ponging synth burbles in We Cannot Resist, there’s almost an assumption that we’re going to see a clash of cultures in shades of we-fade-to-grey, but instead the song swings into sunshine pop that even with Marling’s deadpan delivery sparkles, and then a recitation of the song’s title that calms the seas.
Likewise, the motorised undercarriages of Gamma Ray and the title track give the songs that sense of being twins, but in the early-Eno warping of sound (Is it guitar? Is it synth? Is it something else processed out of form?) of Gamma Ray, and the switch between monochromatic and choral of the voices in Animal, Lindsay and Marling undercut formula without cutting out the point of those sounds.
Even the two most subdued tracks, the instrumental Hair On The Pillow, and the lost in the forest Oberon, move in and out of comfort and discomfort, while the closing track, the rather mesmeric Phantom Limb, slightly warps some of its sounds and then let’s others flutter joyfully, so that what might be a gentle drift to the end is intercut with diversions.
I haven’t really talked about Marling’s words which shouldn’t be ignored, even if you can’t necessarily explain them. To me, though they are structured more formally, they approach from a similar place of disrupted and disruptive storytelling as Dry Cleaning’s Florence Shaw, with Marling probing constantly.
All of which takes me back to playful, to the pleasure each of the moves here that make this an odd record in all the right ways, and a fun one to boot.