Laura Marling should have her own word for what she does. For the moment I cannot think what it is, because she is too many things rolled into one. It would have to be prosaic, historic, encompassing the kind of tales that traditional story tellers hand down through generations. Women turning into wolves, singing over the bones, giving life, taking life, suffering and becoming whole though the rich, unfurling tapestry of experience. For now, I strongly offer up her last name as a shortened form of ‘Marvellous’, perhaps an amalgam of marvellous and darling? “That is Marling!” they will say.
Roving through the corridors of light and dark that frame her three studio albums from 2008 to 2011, Marling’s maturity grows with a confidence in her voice and an ability to shape a tale. It is stunning to hear it play out, forming the words then setting them running across your open mind. She has been hailed as the modern day Joni Mitchell in her latest offering, A Creature I Don’t Know, and I can think of few who are so deserving of the prestigious title. Mitchell is known for her compelling lyricism and sultry vocal arrangements which beg innocence, yet gilded with slightly tarnished vignettes of life maturity. Laura excels in these areas, wielding her dual sword of mildness and strength, weaving it into each magical chapter. Her tunes can be read as fairy tales, walking in the footsteps of the Brothers Grimm perhaps? Yet in removing the theatrical facade of these tales, you can also see the very real situations which have shaped a past and carried her through to the present.
Throughout the pages of her latest record there is a candid tone. Marling is sometimes cloaked by resigned acceptance of life’s suffering, at other times revealing a rage that has been fatigued by the marching of time. This statement seems to infer she has become dull. On the contrary, pure rage is fresh and furious. It screeches to be heard and claims victims until all energy has been sacrificed to its cause. Maturity seeks alternative routes to quell anger, views different sides of the same coin, and expends this energy in a more worthwhile pursuit. Her maturity is in taking a different route. ‘All My Rage’, the final track on album speaks volumes in its upbeat tempo alive with banjo riffs and sturdy base notes, choral arms lifting her; a crystal clear voice cutting through to the fore, repeating “I leave my rage to the sea and the sun”. Both are elemental, fierce and raw; both necessary for our survival. With this final line Laura is recognising the patchwork of emotions we contend with every day is part and parcel of our world, and is nothing to fear.
Looking back to her debut, Alas I Cannot Swim, the title alone epitomises a deep sense of fear that comes with the territory of being a teenager. Hitting the gig scene at 17, having already been a devoted fan of folk from a young age, Marling experienced discomfort at not being able to “slot [her]self into the age appropriate genre”. Her schooling at the private Quaker School in Leighton Park, she has said, gave her a feeling of unease when around others, along with a fear of death. Tracks like ‘Night Terror’, with its dark overtures and confusion, drags our protagonist down into the depths as she muses “I woke up on a bench on Shepherds Bush green, a candle at my chest, and my head on his knee. I got up, it was dark, there’s no one in the park at this hour how do I keep finding myself here?”. However, ‘Cross Your Fingers’ earns Laura the ability to laugh in the face of the inevitable and uncontrollable. “Cross your fingers, hold your toes, we’re all gonna die when the building blows. And the house that you were born in, is crumbling at the corners, sagging skin and feet of crows”. Alluding to the very real spectre of death, Marling’s saving grace is her ability to view our collective demise as poetic, and almost welcoming; “and you’ll be reborn bigger and stronger”.
Regardless, there is also a very real sense of fear, tinged with regret and perhaps the odd peek of mild depression, Marling’s arrangements often speak of lightness, perhaps aiming to combat these fears. She becomes ethereal; waiflike she floats through the lyrical scenery using her voice like wings. Singing with a grace and smoothness that refuses to be brought down by the real and imagined “hollow thing” that lies in wait, a song like ‘Shine’ gathers strength which expels any corruptive force “step away from my light I need shine”. But it is not mere existential angst which brings down our heroine. ‘Ghosts’ offers an insight into emotional baggage carried from past relationships into new connections. Lyrics “Lover please do not fall to your knees, it’s not like I believe in ever-lasting love” are both comforting and terrible, hemmed with a carousing arrangement of strings and skins that illuminates fear in the heart of joy. The record in its entirety flits between real and imagined terrors, teenage rebellion, confusion and enlightened perspectives. It shimmers with all the energy of a soul both corrupted and exalted by life’s contradictions.
Second studio album is graceful still, but with more fire, like the silver lining of all her soul searching. Again, the title of the Record, I Speak Because I Can, is full of meaning. Opener ‘The Devil’s Spoke’ is sharp and biting. It owns a rage that is yet to be harnessed, with lyrics “eye to eye, nose to nose, ripping off each others’ clothes in a most peculiar way” decrying a latent sexuality that moves with age. She is cautious of romantic feeling, and of relying on another, as she bitingly remarks “What of which you wish to speak, have you come here to rescue me?” She can also be possessive of this person “I am your keeper, and I hold your face away from light”. The track speaks of destruction in the want of another. There is, however, a depth maturity in her tracing of romantic love. ‘What He Wrote’, penned after reading war time love letters, toys with the idea of longing and loss. It also softens Marling’s inferences of independence that colour the record. ”forgive me Hera I cannot stay, he cut out my tongue there is nothing to say.” Calling to the Goddess of Women and Marriage, it is as if she offers apology for not being stronger, as she calls “I miss his smell” in her half broken voice.
Hera, Sophia, and God are just three of the guiding forces that are called upon within the records. Being a religious lady, her faith can be called in to question, but often is fiercely clung to. In ‘Hope In The Air’ she asks “pick up your rope Lord, sling it to me if we are to battle I must not be weak...for I am your saviour your last serving daughter.” However, it is the assistance of Hera in I Speak Because I Can and Sophia “Goddess of power” in A Creature I Don’t Know that is in sharp relief. The presence of these ethereal totems buoys resolve, creates a strength through which the musical arrangements soar, but also causes moments of chaos in which female rage rises through the restraints.
Appearing in the final Reord A Creature I Don’t Know, Sophia has her own song, but appears throughout the narrative. Her strength lifts the spirit of ‘The Beast’, in which the thunderous drums and soft strummed riffs convey loss, lyrics “where did our love go, you will never know” telling of a love gone sour. The addition of the beast in the tale, and lyrics “tonight I choose the beast, and tonight he lies with me” as the riff reaches full throttle attacks the memories of the past in favour of destruction of body and mind. Connotations of savagery have this unbridled rage bubbling to the top for the moment. Recurring lyrics in ‘Sophia’, “Oh I have been wandering, where I have been pondering. Where I’ve been lately is no concern of yours” retains this taint of soured love. Yet it is the arrangement again which refuses to fall under the weight of loss. Sophia is invoked, as she admits; “Sometimes I sit stare, sometimes you look and sometimes I don’t care. Rarely I weep sometimes I must. I’m wounded by dust”. As she kicks the bridge, the track tumbles through to an up-tempo country number, backing vocals heralding her Goddesses’ entrance. Its astoundingly beautiful, almost as all encompassing as ‘My Firends’. This track epitomises her signature dichotomy between lightness and heaviness in arrangements and lyrics. Lightly strung acoustics hang over her open vocals as lyrics concede “You’re very tall, you’re very handsome, you have it all, your skin smells like man and, you’ll never know how I ached.” Reaching a tempo crescendo alive with banjo strings, guitars and drums, with the lyrics “a few good mothers go for what they ought not, what they ought not teach” heralds a joie de vivre in following your own path, for good or ill.This is the very bed of her beauty. The paths that are explored are many and varied. They offer little judgement save for the raw emotions that spring from each new experience. It is because Marling is so elemental and thoughtful in arrangements and lyrics that she is so compelling. The differing conclusions you can draw on each song each time you hear them makes for an ever changing canvass upon which she has put her mark, and so can you. Her albums offer a catharsis, expel rage, soften fear, prop you up, allow you space and time to breathe and focus. It can offer a sadness that becomes a short term dwelling to revel in, but offers an escape route into the joy and light which is rightfully yours, when you want to grab it. There are no excuses, no apologies, just the elemental emotions we all are capable of, and a sense that there is no shame in these experiences. We are all, and all have, a creature we don’t know, we fear drowning but yet speak, because we can.