Every other Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.

As Laura Marling hiked up through the pre-dawn dark to fill a bottle with water from a Mount Shasta river, it occurred to her that she was following instructions from a stranger. A man. A much older man. And not just any older man — a self-proclaimed shaman. Whom she’d met in a bar. He had said that the water would give her everlasting life.

Vulnerability and a need for a meaningful context — those seem to be the primary focal points of this ‘Short Movie’.

It then occurred to her that the only one person in the world who would know her current location, out in this unfamiliar darkness, was that very same stranger who had sent her there. What a risk she was taking. There, between gigs on her 2013 tour, she felt suddenly exposed. Vulnerable.

What happened next? According to her own narrative in an Under the Radar interview, she turned around, took the first step of her flight back toward reason and security, and plunged right into the water.

For those who are new to Marling’s music, this story is a perfect introduction, capturing a quality of her work that always holds me spellbound: She sounds daring, impulsive…and exposed. She takes listeners with her into places of unsettling darkness and unnerving vulnerability. I admit it: I get a little worried about and for her. But then, she’ll turn a sharp corner, and I’ll catch my breath, engulfed by a rush of beauty so cold and clear and invigorating that I want to go back again and again for refills.

Marling writes, plays, and sings with a passion and personality that I’m thirsty for in a music industry crowded with fakers, frauds, and fashion statements. She’s drawing from deep reservoirs of melody and experience. I could go on about the accolades she’s received from living legends. I could focus on her age (she’s only 25, and this is her fifth record). But there’s only one thing you need to do to be persuaded that she’s the real thing: Just start listening.

Marling first got my attention in 2009, when I learned that the extraordinary voice I was hearing over the Starbucks speakers belonged to a 19-year-old from Berkshire. The 13 tracks on Short Movie (more if you pick up the “Director’s Cut” edition) suggested she’d been marinating in the music of masters: Joni Mitchell (obviously), P.J. Harvey (punk swagger), Suzanne Vega (hauntedness, literary flair), and Kate Bush (penchant for mythological references and dark investigations), with shots of Kurt Cobain (an inclination toward lament) and Leonard Cohen (“Easy” borrows rather directly from “Suzanne”) in the mix. Since then, I’ve been on the edge of my seat tracking her progress in a way that I haven’t felt since Maria McKee showed up. If Marling’s this good at 25, who will she be in ten years?

According to Marling, she’s not even sure who she is now. And that gives her music a restless energy — she brings to life characters who are struggling to find their place in relation to lovers, loneliness, and longing.

Take Track One — “Warrior” — for instance:

I wouldn’t want to be the guy who inspired this song. He’s made her see their relationship as being like that between a horse and her rider; she’s been made to carry him in the direction of whatever battle he feels compelled to fight:

He means to ride me on
He sees a battle he don’t want to face alone
I bolt upwards and shake him off my back
He falls to his knees onto a bloody track

 I can’t be your horse anymore
You’re not the warrior I’ve been looking for

Sounds like a nasty breakup. But Marling is just getting started:

I see what you mean to do with me
I cannot protect you from who you want to be
Go face the Lord on your own
You have my love, but it will not make you grow

 I can’t be your horse anymore
You’re not the warrior I would die for.

More power to any woman who calls it quits if her man is treating her as a means to an end—especially if that end is ego-driven or self-destructive:

He, fearing solitude, began to beg,
When I saw I was sure, stuck a knife into my leg.
“Good luck walking on in your own bloody trail.
This noble path you’re on will send us both to hell.”

I’m just a horse on the moor.
Where is my warrior I’ve been looking for?

Suddenly, the song is more severe, more desperate. This co-dependent and abusive partner loved her so little that when she finally tore herself away, he turned violent. Betrayed and alone, she turns her appeals outward: “Where is my warrior I’ve been looking for?” She’s on a search for a new warrior — one, perhaps, less intent on charging headlong into battle.

In the next verse, she sings about stumbling on, “licking my sores,” and believing that somewhere there are “other beasts who think the same.” She seeks a sense of kinship with other seekers, other survivors. And it’s there that the story takes a surprising twist: She’s looking for a warrior, but she finds something — or someone — altogether different. “I am found,” she announces.

I’ll let you discover the unexpected figure who appears to resolve matters—but I will say that I’m unsettled by how the singer’s character concludes far short of freedom or independence. She’s found not an equal or a companion, but a new master — she remains a beast, finding purpose in the presence of another authority figure, someone who will answer her questions and give her good direction.

The story is not conclusive, and those listening closely may suspect that the record’s last song — “Worship Me” — plays as a second chapter. But I’ll let you discover that one on your own.

The central theme of “Warrior” — love as a tension between solitude and slavery — comes up again and again on Short Movie. There are few songs in Marling’s catalog that anyone would characterize as “mellow”; everything feels extreme to her. (Isn’t that true for just about anyone in their early twenties?) In “I Feel Your Love,” for instance, the title is an expression not of bliss, but of distress:

Keep your love around me
eep your love around me
So I can never know what’s going on.
What’s going on?

Keep your love around me
Keep your love around me
So I can’t be alone. An electric fence,
A silent defense…

By the end, she’s pleading: “I feel your love / Please let me go….

Meanwhile, in “False Hope,” the album’s second track — the most ferocious and radio-ready song of this generous set — she comes right out and asks: “Is it still okay that I don’t know how to be alone? […] Is it still okay that I don’t know how to be at all?” She wrote this song when she was stuck in an apartment without power during Hurricane Sandy, and it sounds as if the storm has brought to the surface a sense of insecurity and disconnection that was inside her all along.

Vulnerability and a need for a meaningful context — those seem to be the primary focal points of this Short Movie. The songs sound like journal entries from a time of searching, experimenting, risk and retreat. According to Marling’s interviews, some of these lyrics come from time spent reading Carl Jung, George Gurdjieff, and Rainer Maria Rilke; conversing with the aforementioned “shaman” in a Southern Oregon bar; studying hatha yoga and suffering loneliness in Los Angeles; and choosing solitude after a hard relationship.

But even though she’s a professing introvert, she didn’t find solitude enjoyable for long. She told The Guardian: “You feel unwatched in LA, which is nice, but then that becomes not nice all of a sudden. … You feel unlooked-after. Even the relentless sun. It feels like even God isn’t looking after you. I’m not actually religious, but he’s not even putting the protection of clouds above your head. You start feeling really exposed.”

I don’t know Marling. We’ve never met. But her words remind me of loved ones who, while deeply uncertain about their places in the world, launched themselves — unsupported and vulnerable — into unfamiliar territory, only to suffer deep heart damage. But, just as her self-effacing account of an adventure in the dark with an empty water bottle suggests a person whose thirst is leading somewhere dangerous, so her self-awareness of weakness and error, and the conviction with which she counsels a married man gone astray in “Strange,” bring bright threads of wisdom and hope to the tapestry.

There seems to be a growing awareness in her songs about the promise of beauty, truth, the divine. Voices from my Evangelical origins flare up, insisting that the only answer to such a quest is the “living water” of the gospel. I’m learning, however, to push those voices back; as Simone Weil says, “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

Oh, and by the way, that Mount Shasta stream she discovered? “The water was… I can’t describe it,” she says. “Really, I’ve never tasted anything like it. It’s not like it gave me magical powers or anything, but I’m really glad I did that.” If she’s drawing life from these waters, she’s found a stream worth following. We may as well follow to see where it leads.