LAURA MARLING: I SPEAK BECAUSE I CAN - REVISITED
From time to time, I take a short break from the regular Fifty3 Fridays, usually a home of new music from mostly independent, emerging acts. This week we have been visiting relatives in the north and returning yesterday evening left me little scope to conjure the usual column ‘afore teatime. So, this week it gives me great pleasure instead to revisit what I consider to be one of the finest examples of the singer-songwriter album art from someone who in her pre-BRIT Award winning days would have been considered as an emerging artiste.
In early 2010, Laura Marling was very much the doyenne of the then UK new folk movement, already seemingly with a pedigree that defied her young years. Originally with indie folk outfit Noah and The Whale, Laura split from the band before its first album release and produced a solo 2008 debut, Alas I Cannot Swim, which brought along a UK Mercury Prize nomination and set seasoned music journos eulogising. That album was produced by her ex, Noah and The Whale’s singer-guitarist, Charlie Fink.
Her second album release, I Speak Because I Can, was produced by Ethan Johns, the son of legendary engineer-producer to rock’s who’s who, Glyn Johns. Johns junior has some pretty impressive credits too, not least with the likes of Kings of Leon and Ray LaMontagne. He exercised a deft hand over proceedings, knowing when to embellish and where to leave space for Laura’s voice to rule. Rather than simply cataloguing the trials and turmoil of young love, the album speaks with a voice of maturity as Laura explores the roles and responsibilities of full womanhood, frequently using traditional vernacular and imagery to develop an essentially modern thesis.
The monochrome album cover oddly makes a play to undersell the contents. Maybe that’s deliberate. The singer is depicted as almost featureless, in shadow, thin armed, slender necked, hair up, almost in pain. The only colours infill the As and Rs of her name. Open it out, and the lyrics are spread across in tiny capital letters with minimal breaks to denote each song. The typography is only likely to benefit an optician. These are words as wallpaper: read them at your peril or at least with an eyepiece. Make the effort, though, and it’s worth it. She is a really accomplished wordsmith and never takes the easy option with her imagery or rhymes. Her diction is clear enough anyhow for you to set aside the sleeve to just listen and wonder.
Vocally, Laura Marling has a transatlantic tone to her delivery which, if you don’t know her, could make her believably New World, rather than southern English. She can sound like Joni Mitchell, she can come across as a female Dylan, each the company of legends you can live with, but mostly she sounds like Laura Marling, which is how it should be. The variety of delivery she employs is just right, often quiet, assured and never overblown, yet ever capable of sudden, strong bursts of great emotion. The melodies are richly compelling and freshly served. A quieter song follows a more strident one, urgent banjo gives way to gentle acoustic, so it’s like visiting a large house with quite different rooms, all connected yet with their particular moods and tones.
Some of these songs must date from the time of the singer’s relationship with Charlie Fink and centre around her experiences. But much of the subject matter sees the singer step into others’ shoes, like she is trying to reconcile different aspects of her own personality to decide what kind of woman she will be. No easy conclusions are reached and, no doubt, the inner conflict of these newly adult choices will roll on. From the opening Dylan-meets-dervish “Devil’s Spoke” where she lifts her skirts to a progressively frantic, banjo driven accompaniment that ends with lovers “eye to eye, nose to nose/ripping off each other’s clothes in a most peculiar way” to the final optimism from adversity that spins out of the title closer, we get tinder and fire in equal measure.
Album highlights? It’s a case of how long have you got. “Rambling Man” is delivered like a young Joni Mitchell, hair curling at times, peppered with delicious harmonies and typically energetic Mumford & Sons backing. The lines “It’s hard to accept yourself as someone you don’t desire/As someone you don’t want to be” suggest the bleakest self-recognition, but it’s just one side of the coin in Laura’s treasury. “Alpha Shadows” is a glorious tune with a strident, gypsy inspired melody, all fervent strumming and resonant chimes, surrounding the rise and fall of Marling’s impassioned tones. A break-up song of the highest order.
The beautiful “Goodbye England” sees her looking back in tenderness, her soft, vivid memories laced with conflicting emotions about the dual keys of monogamy and freedom. “I try to be a girl who likes to be used/I’m too good for that/ There’s a mind under this hat” follows mention of an unsent letter “twenty-two pages front and back/But it’s too good to be used.” The breezy melody which interleaves the Paul Simon-like “Darkness Descends” neatly contrasts with the song’s imagery of darkness and winter giving way to light and summer sun. From the gentle sensitivity of “Blackberry Stone” to the austerity of “Hope In The Air”, Marling runs the whole gamut of emotions and has produced a near-seamless masterpiece.
This is a great record with a certain immediacy yet more than sufficient depth to make you grow ever fonder of it over time. There are more sweets here than in a candy store, and some of them are unexpectedly bitter-sweet. With I Speak Because I Can, Laura Marling swerved the dreaded second album syndrome and smacked it between the posts with a genuine, heartfelt flourish. I have loved much of what Laura has released subsequently but I Speak Because I Can remains, for me, the pinnacle of her work.
A version of this article first appeared on www.consequence.net in May 2010
Listen to the whole album on Spotify.