Release Date 22/03/2010 (EMI)
By Chris Gilliver
Laura Marling’s first album, “Alas I Cannot Swim” was an impossibly brilliant debut. Released just after she turned 18 her lyrics combined a delicate shyness with a world-weary maturity that spoke of things with a level of understanding that few people reach in their lifetime, let alone while they are still in their teens. The words were simultaneously poetic and simple, her half spoken, gently enunciating voice seemed to whisper straight into your ear, sometimes conversing directly with your own experiences be they positive, negative or simply terrifying. Needless to say it was my favourite album of 2008.
With this in mind her new album comes with a weight of expectation that it cannot bear. “I Speak Because I Can” cannot hope to better “Alas I Cannot Swim”, because the latter spoke to people in a way that few albums ever have.
The first response is naturally defensive and negative, but we (I!) music lovers complain if our musicians divulge from the style we love, and complain if they do the same over and over. They cannot win. Still…
On her first release Marling was backed by members of Noah & The Whale, and they did a sublime job. Scattering their notes sparsely and sparingly, they let the singer do the talking. Now she favours grander, more American and more intrusive instrumentation – gone is the sense of intimacy. Marling is no longer speaking to the individual but to the world – a natural response to her success of course maybe, but this is little comfort to the listener.
Furthermore the album is more professionally produced, and I feel that what it wins in clarity, it loses in amiability.
These are niggles that disappear after repeated play. Laura Marling is older now, even more world weary. The lyrics are more illusive making it harder to make out her character clearly. She deals less with individual, daily scenarios favouring in their stead larger, worldlier issues. On “Rambling Man” she sings “Give me to a rambling man, let it always be known that I was who I am”. If there is anything that sums up her new outlook it is this. Freed from the weight of being a teenager, and possibly from her relationship with Noah and the Whale front man Charlie Fink, she is eager to get carried away by whatever…
When she does concentrate on her break up, as on “Blackberry Stone”, her ability to find deeper truths simply by stating the facts is astounding. Both tough and tender the song is simple and profoundly affecting. Marling is always at her best when she keeps it simple and understated.
Later, Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) is a light-hearted affair, replete with orchestral touched that make it warming and charming. This is before “Hope In The Air” crashes the mood with all the force of snow plough into a deer. These are the highlights.
I’m not convinced that the quality holds up throughout. It is certainly true that Marling’s music cannot be appreciated properly unless heard live. On record something is lost, and when the songs are grander even more is lost. The traditional almost Celtic folk stride of “Devil’s Spoke”, for instance, is forced drama that ends up with a failed attempt to try something that does not work.
When it does work, “I Speak Because I Can” provides further evidence (if needed) that Laura Marling is the finest female singer-songwriter around. I will always take her quiet fierce intellect in preference to the warbling of the Duffys and Adeles of this world.