Album Review: Laura Marling – ‘I Speak Because I Can’ (Virgin)

The growing pains of an old soul make for compelling and powerful music

What’s in a haircut? Plenty, if we’re to believe the hype surrounding the release of new-folk starlet [a]Laura Marling[/a]’s second album. In the promo clip for single ‘Devil’s Spoke’, the one-time possessor of a pixie-blonde crop beyond compare appears glum-faced, hair scraped back into a mousy bun. Scrubbed and sullen-looking, she has the seen-it-all air of an institutionalised heroine in a horror sequel.

Whether it’s Britney’s buzzcut or Alex Kapranos’ trial separation from his fringe circa-2005, we’re all experts in the psychology of haircuts now. From the comfort of our armchairs, we could idly speculate that Ms Marling’s follicular volte-face is the tragic result of her break-up with Charlie Fink of fellow indie folk troupers [a]Noah And The Whale[/a], whose own sophomore release dwelt with teary-eyed intensity on the split. But ‘I Speak Because I Can’ does little to support such claims. It is not reducible to some lame instalment of When Celebrity Haircuts Go Bad, Fall Out Of Cupboards And Generally Reflect The Psychic Turmoil Of Their Proprietors. If you want the truth about the new ’do, it’s the result of a home bleaching incident.

A second hair-derived assumption about this record might be that it’s Laura’s first work of maturity, a guess which proves altogether nearer the mark. ‘Maturity’ can be pop-lexical shorthand for ‘pretentious’ and ‘dull’ but, for better or worse, ‘I Speak Because I Can’ is the sound of 20-year-old Marling facing down the spectre of looming womanhood. Daughter, maid, ‘girl to be used’ – the record teems with prescribed feminine roles and Marling’s attempts to convincingly inhabit them.

Anyone acquainted with ‘Alas, I Cannot Swim’’s Mercury-nominated, sparkling set of clear-eyed folk-pop will be hoping for great things indeed. Opener ‘Devil’s Spoke’ engages those expectations with searing, tent revival urgency. Over a propulsive mix of banjo, sparring acoustic chords and descending notes lifted from Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, Marling swishes her skirts and clutches at strange lyrical serpents: “But I am your keeper/And I hold your face away from light/I am yours ’til they come”. It’s all rather unsettling, even if you’re not sure what it is she’s getting so miffed about.

‘I Speak Because I Can’ also marks a slightly rootsier direction for Marling. ‘Made By Maid’’s solo acoustic number is gorgeous and makes us want to curl up in a badger’s set with the Nick Drake back catalogue. Not that the lyrics are all sweetness and light, hinting as they do at the tribulations of motherhood: “I am blamed for every wrong ever he made/Forgive me I am only a maid”. It ends with the neatly ambiguous “I am forgot the day I am laid” – is she still talking as a disenfranchised mum here? Or something from beyond the grave?

‘Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)’ doubles as childhood elegy and ode to the wintry charms of the countryside, while the title track examines an old-fashioned sense of monogamy from the perspective of a wife suffering in the absence of her husband: “I cooked the meals and he got the life”. That it winds up sounding something close to triumphant is testament to the sensitivity of the songwriting here.

Marling has spoken of the panic attacks brought on by her crippling death-anxiety and ‘Hope In The Air’ seems in part to rebuff those concerns: “Why fear death? Be scared of living/Our hearts are small and ever thinning”. It’s also a terrific performance from the band – a rag-tag ensemble of moonlighting [a]Mumford And Sons[/a] members plus [a]Noah And The Whale[/a]’s Tom Fiddle.

‘Rambling Man’’s delivery is pure Joni Mitchell: “It’s hard to accept yourself as someone you don’t desire/As someone you don’t want to be”. Indeed, Marling’s voice may just be her finest asset, a legitimate heir to the likes of Joan Baez or Sandy Denny of ’60s Brit-folkers Fairport Convention. She can also lend an overwrought couplet unmerited gravitas, and herein lies a quibble: she has a slightly portentous streak which could use a dash of humour. A desire for an authentically mature voice is understandable, but if she stopped straining so hard for serious effect maybe we’d get more of the [a]Laura Marling[/a] who can pen pop numbers as sprightly and quick-witted as ‘Ghosts’.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that Marling has remarked on this record as being “very much her stepping stone”, and that this autumn we are expected to see the release of a third, as-yet-untitled LP. A transitional affair, then? Maybe so, but ‘I Speak Because I Can’ remains a stunning performance to leave haircuts and ex-boyfriends alike trailing in its wake.

Alex Denney

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Click here to get your copy of Laura Marling’s ‘I Speak Because I Can’ from the Rough Trade shop