Over the past 12 years Laura Marling has done the enormous task of proving herself over and over – not to satiate any critics, but more for the sake of herself. She came from countless reviews praising her contributions to the indie-twee folk chasm back in 2008 to reviewers left declaring that “she has earned the right to be compared only to herself” in recent years. Tracking her musical journey has been a constant thrill, even if the content was heavy and stewed in meaning lost on some listeners; her ambitious compositions, her matter-of-fact voice, and her biting and soothing delivery made each album a ride that seemed to better the previous one in some way or another.
It’s been three years since her last solo album, Semper Femina, which saw her broaden her palette, as well as her writing style (she wrote it so that all the characters on the album have female pronouns). Marling went even further afield on LUMP, an album made with Tunng’s Mike Lindsay. It was an intriguing melding of styles, and while she was out of place in certain regards, it was the first instance in a long while where Marling sounded completely at ease with the world around her.
Since then, Marling has moved back to her native London, living both with and near her sisters and constructing her own recording studio in the basement of her house. Her new album, Song For Our Daughter, is the first record she has written away from the road, and the evidence is there in the sometimes homely feel and the dulled theatrical flair.
While Marling doesn’t have a child of her own (at the time of writing), it’s very easy to listen to her new album and imagine her staring lovingly into the eyes of a newborn. There’s a watery-eyed glimmer to the intimate moments here, even if Marling is painting a dour picture of the world. “How would I guide my daughter, arm her and prepare for her life and all of its nuance?”, she asks in the press release to the album (which is arriving months ahead of schedule due to the current state of things in the world with COVID-19). She wants this album to be the voice whispering “all the confidences and affirmations I had found so difficult to provide myself”, and it delivers on that sincerely, cautiously, and sweetly.
On tracks like “Strange Girl” and “Song For Our Daughter” this aim is front and centre, and it makes for rousing, encouraging listening. “Strange Girl” shuffles by briskly with declarations of support and advice (“Build yourself a garden and have something to attend / Cut off all relations because you could not stand your friends / Announce yourself a socialist to have something to defend”) while the title track cautions about “innocence being taken away prematurely” as a sombre streak of sweeping strings take centre stage. Marling is writing kitchen sink dramas like she did on her debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, but here the maturity in her songwriting shows. Instead of trying to say everything and then some, she lets the blank spaces alone for the listener to fill in. The story is there, but in an appropriately motherly fashion, Marling leaves you to work it out for yourself after showing you the pieces to the puzzle.
Indeed, things left unsaid help a song like “Blow By Blow” hit harder. An unspoken tragedy looms in the lyrics and the solemn piano chords, and it’s easy to get caught up in it all that the lesson Marling paints (“Sometimes the hardest thing to learn is what you get from what you lose”) almost goes by you. Elsewhere she provides details of day to day life, like putting off getting in touch with old friends (“Hope We Meet Again”), or the everyday comfort we place in material items (“I wear a picture of you just to keep you safe” on “For You”). Altogether she sounds more settled, and this is captured in her words; even at their most scathing her delivery is set far from attack mode (although the nuance in the line “Oh yawn, girl please don’t bullshit me” is impeccable, especially the tongue click in the final syllable of “bullshit”).
Sonically Song For Our Daughter offers up a familiar feel, which is no doubt from the return of producer Ethan Johns (co-producing alongside Marling here). His touches feel light, but help add weight where necessary, be it with the greater presence of strings or the additional percussion (which never seeks to take the attention, regardless of how busy it is). Perhaps the most curious offering is final track “For You”, which ambles seamlessly through laid back country to a medieval jig, all while being punctuated by a mutli-track hum of a male voice. It’s a carefree sendoff on album which conveys a lot of worry, but ultimately is a totem of hope. The world may be difficult to navigate and treacherous throughout, but if I were Marling’s daughter, I would surely feel reassured knowing I had this album to guide me throughout my life.