The not-so-delicate folk princess delves into darker territory
In fairytales there are demons whose innate darkness contrasts with the hero’s innocent, wide-eyed exterior. In real life, though, these dualities exist in the same being: the hero finds bits of the demon in himself. Happy endings are obligatory in the storybooks; you’re lucky if you get redemption in the mundane world.
[a]Laura Marling[/a]’s third album sees her tackling the good and bad within her own wild heart. The musical and lyrical complexities that nestle within make 2010’s ‘[b]I Speak Because I Can[/b]’ feel like a lifetime ago. Gone is Marling’s pure and strident alto voice, the sturdy re-telling of the folk-pop handbook and any suspicion that she fitted seamlessly into the heart sore singer-songwriter tradition. The voice is lower, the songs take too many wilful left turns for them still to be classified as ‘folk’ and the emotions have taken flight. We’re still in the realm of her senses, but she’s casting away the things of childhood and facing adulthood head on and clear-eyed.
The tales told here see Marling lying down passionately with beasts, yet turning away from the devil. She flirts with self-destruction but finds her identity and salvation in timeless goddesses. The existential itch is musical too; songs stop and start, there’s some rough-housing with rudimentary jazz, slow-burning country and blues rock which sounds like it’s bubbled up from the lowest depths of the Mississippi river. It’s clear that the multiple moods warrant a bigger musical palette than ever before.
Opener [b]’The Muse'[/b] is a work of great subversion, from its provocative title through to its unruly ragtime shuffle. Its lyrics seem to reposition Marling from the passive spirit who haunted the songs of [a]Noah & The Whale[/a]’s Charlie Fink and Marcus Mumford to the vampire, looking to score some grade A inspiration of her own (“[i]I’m nothing but the beast/And I’ll call on you when I need to feast[/i]”). The hunter, it seems, has finally been captured by the game.
So, have the fretful traces of longing and self-aggrandisement that seeped out from the edges of [b]’I Speak Because I Can'[/b] evaporated away in a new womanly confidence? If only it were that simple. In this complex narrative, the road to emancipation is littered with sanctuaries that turn out to be minefields. On [b]’Don’t Ask Me Why'[/b], Laura says she was “[i]looking for answers in unsavoury places[/i]”. One such fake haven, according to the doomed waltz of [b]’Night After Night'[/b], is the father-figure lover (“[i]You were my speaker/ My innocence keeper[/i]”) whom she yearned to emulate (“[i]I longed to become you[/i]”) yet was slowly killing her (“[i]Would you watch my body weaken? My mind slip away?[/i]”).
By the time we get to the album’s devastating centrepiece [b]’The Beast'[/b], there’s a shedding of skins. Love has not brought freedom, only deception, anger and confusion. So she turns to consort with [b]’The Beast'[/b], defiling the memory of a redundant love. The imagery Marling uses here is stark and confrontational; a body hanging from a rope, a distorted mirror image, choking on the aftermath of a beautiful lie. The bluesy, fuzzed-up tussle of sound reflects this; the song ends up snarling, sounding like windows being smashed in.
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This figurative breaking point is also the trigger for the opening of her eyes. On [b]’Was Just A Card'[/b], she concedes “[i]I didn’t even see the night till I said goodbye to him[/i]”. Wrestling her identity from the hand of a lover, she locates it in a land of universal femininity. ‘[b]Salinas[/b]’ is a place “[i]where the women go forever[/i]”, and her mother’s blonde tresses cascade like towers of wisdom. By [b]’Sophia'[/b], thoughts of revenge are pushed out of view in favour of an appeal to the goddess of wisdom for truth and justice. The light-heartedly morbid sea shanty closer finds her singing, “[i]All my rage be gone/I leave my rage to the sea and sun[/i]”.
If [b]’I Speak Because I Can'[/b] was a towering musical achievement, [b]’A Creature I Don’t Know'[/b] is an emotional triumph. This real-life fairytale is made up of myriad difficult home truths but Marling’s [i]hejira[/i], her flight to freedom, makes for absolutely compelling listening. Oh, and there’s a happy, redemptive ending to boot.
Watch the video for ‘[b]Sophia[/b]’ from the album below:
This review appears in the September 10th issue of NME
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Record label: Virgin
Release date: 12 Sep, 2011