The omens are lingering dastardly in the background – all signs point towards Laura Marling’s second album, ‘I Speak Because I Can’ being a work of Thoroughly Serious Business. She’s followed the tried and tested Hollywood method of dying her hair brown to set aside any notions of frivolity, and told NME.com that the record deals with “responsibility, particularly the responsibility of womanhood.” Cripes, and here we were half hoping that she was going to play the Frankee to a certain Charlie Fink’s Eamon…
But fear not – on first listen, although ‘I Speak Because I Can’ marks a much more mature Laura than ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ (she’s still only a whisker short of 20!) it never dwindles into po-faced female eunuchery, and the rambunctious stylings of Marcus Mumford, Ted Dwayne and Winston Marshall from Mumford & Sons, and Tom Fiddle from Noah & The Whale keep it well and truly out of the doldrums. This ain’t the Laura Marling we used to know…
Gone are the sweet odes that made myth out of her own teenage years, seemingly replaced by her looking at herself through a thorny filter of pastoral lore. Her voice still has that extraordinary clarity, but it’s somehow bolder, incanting, “All of this can be broken / All of this can be broken / Hold your devil by his spoke and spin him to the ground” with a tempered force that summons Mumford & The Whale’s folky storm, whilst managing to avoid their own earnest hoedowns. This is the kind of thing usually reserved for that mid-album cataclysm – if this is how she starts, goodness knows (in a good way) what we’re in for over the next nine songs…
Made By Maid
The first comparison that springs to mind here is Nick Drake, but not because she’s written yet another soundalike to add to the pile – no, it’s the thoughtfulness of the playing, and finding a voice recognizable as her own. The record was recorded live, so you can hear her fingers sliding down the strings, weaving a sensitive and warm Drake-like grain. It sounds as though she’s had her nose in a folk lexicon or three, singing of being “born in the fog of the day”, and floating away on a log, delivering the lyrics in a lightly husky, matter of fact tone that occasionally flicks with a raconteurish smoke curl reminiscent of Howe Gelb. It’s the last few lines though that are the most curiously lovely though. She’s talked about this record exploring the responsibility of womanhood, which sounds horribly portentous, but when she sings that the babe she rescued from “atop a log” “blames me for every wrong ever he made,” you get a sense of what she’s on about – Neil Young may have admitted defeat in needing a maid, but for more than just the cleaning, for the comfort of having someone to blame when things go wrong – and one that’s made that bit more devastating by the way her voice then breaks the surface of the song.
There are moments here where her vocals take on a touch of the CocoRosies, as layered and swimmily ephemeral as the “creatures veiled by night” of which she sings. The verse is in a pretty similar vein to ‘Made By Maid’, patterned acoustic guitar that weighs heavy on the beats with the focus on her voice, but then Mumford & The Whale storm in to soundtrack an identity crisis of sorts – first she sings, “Let it be known that I was who I am,” but then “It’s hard to accept yourself as someone you don’t desire / As someone you don’t want to be.” Curious…
Although it’s not quite as damning as ‘Failure’ from ‘Alas…’, it’s easy to hear this as a gentle riposte of sorts, from the perspective of someone who’s moved on and made their peace with a situation whilst the other party “never did learn to let it go.” The opening lines let her vocals soar for the first time on this record, before standing almost alone and above a shadow of a guitar when she sings, “You never did learn to let me be.” It’s bird bone fragile for the most part, bobbing on a single violin string before the other band members come in with gently booming bass drums.
Definitely the most intense song on the record, the violins go from anxious Andrew Bird pings to a full Beirut-scripted fanfare for a very English war, and someone’s thrown rocks in the path of her usually fluid guitar, here almost defiantly played classical chords in the introduction. Up until now she’s been mild in her force, but this track’s stream of consciousness lyrics provoke an almost raging yelp as she sings, “the grey in this city is too much to bear,” elsewhere railing against the rich of Holland Avenue and the man who “work[s] my heart ‘til its raw.”
Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)
If only this song had been around to soundtrack the deluge of white a few weeks back, instead of the cantankerous grumbles of The Great British Public. Err, you’ve got an excuse to skive off work, sit at home drinking hot chocolate and watching Mad Men repeats, stop complaining! Anyway, Miss Marling’s a jolly big fan of the snow, as this gorgeous number doth tell, and it’s lovely to hear her on a brighter note, leaving the Serious Business for a moment to frolic in the snow. Even though death shows his crumbling head a few times in lines about being “lay[ing] here forever in the snow,” and echoing her dad’s request to a childhood Laura that she bring him back when he’s old, ‘tis the sweetest track on the record, all romantic violin crests, community singalongs and cutely cawed feminist credo – “I tried to be a girl who likes to be used / I’m too good for that / There is a mind under this hat.” Bravo Marling.
Hope In The Air
We’re back to serious business – there’s “no hope in the air, no hope in the water,” talk of weak hearted battle and Laura as a dispirited saviour, sung like an oracle condemning the past and delivering warnings about the future. Whether that’s the ol’ Marling wisdom before her years or a touch of melodrama remains to be seen, but it certainly comes together with Noah and the Mumfords playing like condemned men allowed one last chance at absolution.
What He Wrote
Inspired by wartime love letters that Laura read in a newspaper, ‘What He Wrote’ seems to detail the forbidden love of writing to a man other than your husband – she appeals to the Greek goddess Hera, goddess of women and marriage, for forgiveness for speaking to this man when she’s “spoken for.” The whole song, just vocals and guitar, trembles in its waltz rhythm, but the most effecting line has to be the unqualified frankness of, “I miss his smell.”
She’s a tricksy one – this jangly number starts with talk of facepaint and friends, but then under its deceptively jaunty hoedown, beautiful girl-boy harmonies and Disney film flute, she’s talking of going mad and clearing a space to be buried… It’s the closest you’re going to get to being able to dance to this record, and even then, it’d be more of a shy shuffle than any exuberantly busted moves, but well worth a try anyway.
I Speak Because I Can
There’s a worry from the opening line that this could be the moment where everything unravels – as she sings, “My husband left me last night,” the indelible stamp left on the ears by freak folk clichés suggests that we’re in for a tale of abandonment on the shore whilst the terrible tide ensconces our hero in his watery belly. Fortunately, no such nautical nonsense here though. It’s apparently a retelling of the story of Odysseus, but from his wife’s perspective – poor Penelope, left at home waiting for him to finish his heroics. Unlike elsewhere in the record where Mumford & The Whale play for every penny of what they’re worth, here the ramshackle orchestra hold back a little, letting Laura shout, coo and howl her way to the finish. Quite the barnstormer.