Laura Marling, the blonde haired pixie queen of British nu-folk has gone dark. Very dark. Not only has she dyed her hair, but there’s something going on here. Two years of gigging, growing older (although she’s always sounded remarkably older than her years) and relative stardom have produced a remarkably different album from Alas, I Cannot Swim.
Somewhere along the line, the Regina Spektor influences have lessened, and Marling’s started channeling Sandy Denny. Whilst she sounds nothing like Fairport’s siren singer, there’s a kinship in her sound, both with Denny and with the band that she fronted. ‘Devil’s Spoke’ is folk-rock, pure and simple – it’s dark, swirling and pounding, with a nearly bluesy guitar, indicating a little of the Zep floating around the arrangement’s subconscious. That blues overtone, and the diabolical imagery of her lyrics remind me forcibly of Robert Johnson’s darker moments – sonically, this is still rooted in England, but something of our Atlantic cousins’ tones have coloured the palette.
Lyrically, there’s a different order of complexity going on – sly references to Shakespeare on ‘Made by Maid’, and the attendantly wild imagery, much more Tolkeinesque than any prog rocker’s, truly evokes that which folk music often doesn’t – life and emotions for people, in the countryside. Alan Lomax, eat your heart out. Her voice now sounds a little more lived in, although sometimes the yelp of the nu-folk scene can still leap up and catch the heart. Breaking free from the slightly fey sound of her peers, and taking the emotional-yet-folky template to a much folkier place, ‘Rambling Man’ once again sounds more like Fairport Convention than Noah and the Whale, which, in my humble opinion, can only be a good thing.
There’s a strong undercurrent of connecting with nature, an earthiness evoked in the opening of ‘Blackberry Stone’, which doesn’t seem to match up with an album cover that reminds me forcibly of Feist’s The Reminder, but couldn’t be sonically more different. The overarching sound here is darker and more tense than on Marling’s debut. She attacks the guitar, and the arrangements swell and pound a lot harder than before. ‘Alpha Swallows’, a slow burning track which initially seems like a harking backwards fairly swells into a huge powerful wash of sound, leading brilliantly into possibly the best song here, ‘Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)’, a song of bleak happiness, beautifully drawing images of winters in a rural England, but like that environment, of love which is liable to break and disappear at a moment’s notice.
Her oft-mentioned maturity is ever-present, especially in this central section of the album. Switching effortlessly between the grand, often meteorological, natural imagery and intensely personal reflections and outpourings of emotion, Marling takes us to an even darker place on the ironically titled ‘Hope In The Air’. Juxtaposing one of her lighter melodies with some incredibly pessimistic lyrics, typified by refrains along the lines of “There’s hope in the air, there’s hope in the water, but sadly not me your last serving daughter”, this is another of her best songs, building up the album to its central peak, before ‘What He Wrote’ leaves the outside world completely.
Focusing totally on the internal world of Greek goddesses, holy lambs and ships, Marling moves from nature to religion to draw her parallels, and succeeds mightily – not being tied down by the pastoral across the whole album, the spiritual side of pop songwriting is a prevalent influence. The spare sounds and upfront mixing highlight the incredible control she has over her voice, and nowhere more does Marling sound a few years older than on her debut. It’s the control and maturity that makes the lightness of ‘Darkness Descends’ all the more lonely – the multitracked harmonies have overtones of Crosby Stills and Nash, or Simon and Garfunkel, the latter especially when the band kicks in suddenly halfway through. Here, the wintry and the spiritual vie within her young tortured mind, intertwining with love and memory to create a spiral of images and scraps of stories.
The title track is another beast entirely. A melancholy lament for a life that could have been, this is one of the most outspokenly feminist songs I’ve ever heard. With a blues, nearly a bluegrass tinge to the arrangement, this shuffles and shifts along, with heartbreaking words – “When you’re running up the highway, singing I’m the king, the king of you all, when you look back to where it started, I’ll be there waving you on” – Marling finds the tensions between love, independence, compromise and concession and spectacularly let’s go. Her voice has never sounded so wild and free, and yet never out of control. As a final statement for what is an incredibly dark and moving tonal and lyrical arc, ‘I Speak Because I Can’ is a stone cold classic. At not even 40 minutes, this really is a tightly wound album, but one which will unravel in a myriad different ways each time it’s played. Brilliant stuff.
[If you buy this album on iTunes, you get the bonus track ‘Nature of Dust’, which compares us all to that simple building block of the soil, but it’s a somewhat jarring note – however, not a bad one. Whilst the initial shock of such a bumptious tune after the primal wail of ‘I Speak Because I Can’ does seem incongruous, it wraps things up with a slightly more optimistic tone.]
Key Tracks: Devil’s Spoke/Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)/I Speak Because I Can