Album Review: Laura Marling
 – I Speak Because I Can

[Astralwerks; 2010]

What happens when someone renowned for their dark and adult introspectiveness grows up and becomes darker? Laura Marling might well have put herself in the casket of young prodigies with her My Manic & I EP and her debut album Alas, I Cannot Swim – all recorded before she hit the age of eighteen – but as much as a generous title as this may have been for her, it was as equally hindering. It was an encumbrance on her because of the lofty expectations placed on her as a songwriter, deterring the view from her more youthful tales of lost love which she excelled at (“New Romantic”, “Ghosts”, “Failure”). But back on the closing song to her My Manic & I EP, “Typical”, she sings “It’s boring to hear of another young truth” suggesting she’s just as conflicted as we the listener are. She has the choice to explore either side of the spectrum, from the moody deep dark side of epistemological conflicts to the light hearted and whimsical follies we all come across in life. And she did this on Alas, almost splitting the record into two halves and with admirable success thus garnering more attention towards her song writing skills.

On her new album, I Speak Because I Can, she favours the exploration of the darker sides of things, but her almost thematically youthful pessimism still manages to seep through the more brash exteriors the songs are given. Marling cannot deny her age and anyone who grows up too fast is only likely to regret not having exploited her their youth more, allowing them to make more mishaps without such scolding blame being put on them. But because she occupied a space in between two sides on Alas, her lyrical slip ups were somewhat noticeable and distracted from the full effect the song had likely taken three or so minutes to build up. On I Speak she still muddles up her phrasing, but because the songs feel stronger it can sometimes be easier to forgive her – but some still linger in my mind distastefully.

On “Alpha Shallows” she sings “You’ll work your thumbs ‘till they are sore/ And you’ll work my heart until it raw” but she sings it “rawr” (yes, like a little dinosaur if you will), forcing the rhyme, makes me want to put my head in my hands. On “Hope In The Air” she puts forth an odd metaphor: “My life is a candle and a wick/ You can put it out but you can’t break it down/ In the end we are waiting to be lit”. As earnestly as she tries to sing it, I can’t help but feel the enthusiasm is masking the fact that the line is a bit of a dud that might have sounded good when first thought of it. Later on in the song her rhymes just get lazy: “A friend is a friend forever/ And a good one will never leave never…You will never understand ever” , sounding this time like she got whisked away in writing the song and not bothering to properly think her words through.

And it’s a shame because these incidents occur in two of the album’s best songs. Forgiveness is easier as said before because the arrangements are fuller and more foreboding. Ethan Johns production serves Marling’s song well, exploring territory that feels a little more interesting than even the likes of the Celtic violin solo on “Night Terror”. Once again “Alpha Shallows” and “Hope In The Air” can be paired together in that they both get by on Eastern inflections. The impressive opening track “Devil’s Spoke” begins on a hazy note before guitars and banjos are brought in and a sort of sinister ho-down ensues. Even her more solo moments are well emphasised: “What He Wrote” is a touching tale that sounds like it could come from sometime in the 18th century amidst the horrors of some nautical war or early 19th century high society. It makes for a gripping listen, with the mood accentuated by the hushed choir in the background.

Many will see this album as both an obvious and subtle maturation from Marling. She says it deals with “responsibility, particularly the responsibility of womanhood” and it’s evident that she’s finally growing up and wanting to escape the somewhat naive childish nature she sang of on her previous work. But she’s just as sentimental as ever even if she’s letting lost love go. On the beautiful centrepiece “Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)” she seems to have moved into brighter territory compared to her original descriptions of the likes of London (“The veins of which have broken me down”). Here she finds solace in the simple image of a wintry landscape while still managing to be honest about herself in both flattering and unflattering lights (“I might be cold but I’m just skin and bones…I try to be a girl who likes to be used/ I’m too good for that, there’ s a mind under this hat”).

Come the final songs on the album she embraces her insecurities in a somewhat surprising manner. She ends the sprightly “Darkness Descends” with “You deal with God far too young/ before you know it your life has run away” once again following on from the lyrics in “Typical”, showing that she fully aware of her conflicting situation as a songwriter and as an adult. On the closing title track her lyrics are full of regrets – “Never rode my bike down to the sea/ never quite figured out what I believe/ never got up and said anything” – but she sounds far from regretful and more optimistic about it all. It sounds like she’s letting the past drift away on a refreshing seaside wind, like a kite cut from its string. With another album said to be in the works for later this year, perhaps Marling is ready to embrace the present and look to the future and if she concentrates on it as much as she has on the past then it’s only going to a bright future for her, even if her sound gets darker still.