(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #90 – released March 22, 2010)
Track listing: Devil’s Spoke / Made By Maid / Rambling Man / Blackberry Stone / Alpha Shallows / Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) / Hope In The Air / What He Wrote / Darkness Descends / I Speak Because I Can
It’s not an exaggeration labeling British folk singer/songwriter Laura Marling a prodigy: before turning twenty, she recorded two albums (the first at age 17, beating Fiona Apple by one year) and both were nominated for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize (she lost out to Elbow and the xx.) Furthermore, like Apple, her lyrics and relatively low-pitched vocals had the presence of someone at least twice her age. Impressive from a technical standpoint, for sure, but even on her debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, one could easily comprehend her widescreen talent and distinct persona, even if the latter was understandably a bit putative.
In that regard, her second album, I Speak Because I Can, is a substantial advance. Of course, Marling’s still a world-weary teen baring an acoustic guitar (exemplified by track two, “Made By Maid” which is just that and nothing more), but from the outset, she seems more willing to take risks, both with her sound and subject matter. Opener “Devil’s Spoke” begins with neither with her voice nor guitar but a needle drop on a vinyl record, followed by a wash of electronically-enhanced ambient sound that grows in volume until, near the forty-second mark, Marling’s brisk, acoustic strumming enters, starting the song proper. A rhythm section, keys and, in the second verse, banjo flesh out the arrangement. “Hold your devil by his spoke and spin him to the ground,” she commands in the chorus, not exactly possessed but still fiercely determined.
Whereas Charlie Fink, vocalist for Noah and the Whale (a band Marling also briefly sung with) helmed her first album, producer Ethan Johns lends a tad more polish to I Speak Because I Can. Johns had previously worked with a plethora of rock-leaning artists, including Ray LaMontange, Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams and Crowded House; three-quarters of Mumford and Sons also play on a majority of these songs, which might’ve quietly overshadowed the scope of Marling’s accomplishment since the band had scored their breakthrough hit “Little Lion Man” between the album’s recording and its release (not to mention Marling was also dating leader Marcus Mumford at the time.)
In retrospect, quibbling over what impact Marling had in spite of her more famous collaborators is irrelevant (she and Mumford would split by the end of 2010), mostly because Marling is so clearly the main attraction here. Any doubts should be extinguished by “Rambling Man”, a statement of purpose as assured and mesmeric as, say, Apple’s “Shadowboxer” or even Sam Phillips’ “I Need Love”. Like many a Marling song, it starts off simply, just acoustic guitar and voice, but oh how lovingly and effortlessly it builds, wrapping a crystalline melody within an arrangement it snugly fits into while also allowing enough room to breathe. Its chorus, “Oh give me to a rambling man / let it always be known that I was who I am,” is one heck of a manifesto for a teenager; she’s convincing enough to get it across.
In another time, “Rambling Man” could’ve become a standard along the likes of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”–a major-key anthem any aspiring folksinger with a guitar in hand would want to cover on stage or while busking. For Marling, however, it’s only one side of her persona, a mere fraction of her capabilities. Here, it also flickers through on “Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)”, a perfectly accessible, comforting ballad graced with glistening strings and a melody simple enough to sing the lyrics of “On Top of Old Smokey” to; add a little more piano and it could almost be Tori Amos (albeit with a genuine Brit accent that renders words like “she” and “stay” as “schee” and “schtay”.)
Happily, much of the album traverses off into darker, Boys For Pele friendly territories. On one end of that spectrum, you have “What He Wrote”, a haunted, hymn-like lament inspired by letters written between a World War II soldier and his beloved. Reminiscent of 1960s folk-pop like “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” and Fairport Convention’s “Fotheringay”, it’s as delicate as it is engrossing, not least because of tiny motifs such as Marling’s clipped pronunciation of the words “grip” and “ship”. On the other end lies “Alpha Shallows”, a minor-key waltz with guitar arpeggios straight out of Songs of Leonard Cohen and tautly plucked strings. Marling’s also tightly wound, her mounting despair heightened by scores of ringing piano and mandolin. “The grey in this city is too much to bear,” she pleads, her immense but measured passion soon coming out one word at a time: “I / want / to / be / held / by / those / arms,” over and over, so much longing and grief you dearly hope she isn’t just singing into the void.
If that’s not bleak enough for you, the ironically-titled “Hope In The Air” might suffice. A kiss-off to a friend or lover in the guise of a caustic folk murder ballad, it proceeds at a deliberate, dread-accumulating pace: “No hope in the air / no hope in the water / not even for me / your last serving daughter,” goes its oddly catchy chorus. Which each verse, Marling manages to seem more incensed without ever losing composure, nearly speak-singing lyrics like, “My life is a candle and a wick / You can put it out but you can’t break it down / In the end, we are waiting to be lit,” with an urgency and authority you dare not argue with. When she suddenly admits, “Why fear death, be scared of living,” it’s an intriguing counterpart to “Let it always be known that I was who I am,” no matter how much she may now be inhabiting a character; come to think of it, how autobiographical is “Rambling Man”, anyway?
She further muddies those waters whenever she flashes a sense of humor and more than a hint of self-deprecation. Both come through most strongly on “Darkness Descends”: while the lyrics read like an introverted young Goth’s confessional (“Can I just say I don’t feel the light / But darkness descends once more into my life”), the music and melody are as breezy and cheerful as a quick-footed romp at a local pub’s dance night. The tempo also repeatedly comes to a pause, only to start up again as if mocking her for finding an additional thing to fixate on. She keeps all but telling us to leave her alone, only to be silently saying (or perhaps not, via her congenial, multi-syllabic “aaaahhhhs”), “But I’d really wish you’d stay.”
I Speak Because I Can concludes with its title track, a thrilling declaration of resilience in a world crumbling around one’s self. The narrator shouts out to the husband who’s left her, “When you look back to where you started / I’ll be there waving you on.” In the years since, Marling herself has rarely looked back—her subsequent discography is one of this decade’s richest. A Creature I Don’t Know, Once I Was An Eagle and Short Movie all made my year-end top ten albums lists, and in retrospect, 2017’s Semper Femina probably should have as well. With each release, she further expands her musical palette, exploring and occasionally creating new sounds and subgenres. LUMP, her recent collaborative EP with Tunng’s Mike Lindsay, takes a deep dive into atmospheric EDM folk; it’s an unlikely detour and as solid as anything she’s done. And to think—at this writing, she’s not even thirty. Marling remains a former prodigy worth paying close attention to.
Up next: “All sounds like a dream to me.”
“Hope In The Air”: