Since leaving Noah and the Whale in 2008, Laura Marling has never looked back. It is almost as if the ironic musings of 5 Years Time (one of the best number one songs of the decade, albeit on its second release) never happened. For Marling’s debut Alas I Cannot Swim, produced by Whale front man and ex-boyfriend Charlie Fink, is much more ’serious’ than anything she was involved in before. It spins tales of odd characters, inner turmoil and certainly helped Marling belie her seventeen years. The album was also nominated for the Mercury Prize. Two years on and I Speak Because I Can arrives with Marling, now twenty, dragging the dark introspective poetry of her impressive debut kicking and screaming into a now confident, defiant and brilliant light.
One of the big problems with Alas I Cannot Swim is its inward nature. The songs are subtle and beguiling, drawing you slowly into Marling’s world, wrapping you in lyrical wonder and leaving you empty and numb. In contrast I Speak Because I Can is a supreme expression of confidence. This is no more evident that in Marling’s vocals, strong, powerful and gutsy. This is an album about relationships, love, loss and womanhood, with depth and emotion filling the songs. Opening with the striking guitars of Devil’s Spoke, a song in three movements, an oddly shaky start brings a startling energy. Every inflection in Marling’s voice is coupled with a dramatic explosion of strings. The mid-section flirts with a change of direction as directness is replaced with melody, but the venom is still there into a transformed final whirling finale.
The same drama fills Rambling Man, with Joni Mitchell and Dylan overtones, and Marling in wonderful vocal form. The use of elegant backing vocals is a superb addition. “Let it always be known that I was who I am”, sings Marling defiantly on the chorus. The core of I Speak Because I Can is brimming with the same dramatic moments. From the outset the guitars on the eastern European folk odyssey Alpha Shadows are just begging to be let free. After a minute we get the first teasing taste of this excellence. “…the grey in this city is too much to bear; And I believe we are meant to be seen and not to be understood” brings the second incarnation before “I want to be held by those arms”. It is captivating. Another change into the last minute and the music and harmonies build into something new and fresh.
To complete the best of the album is the best song of all, the wonder that is Hope In The Air. Centred around the repeated chorus “No hope in the air, no hope in the water, not even for me, your last serving daughter” but offering so much more, this is a master class of vocal control; soft and sultry but powerfully feminine: “I have seen men provoked, and I have seen lives revoked, and I looked at my life and I choked, from there no more ever I spoke…”. A horror movie unfolding, the vocals develop and mature, as chilling piano bring an interlude before the rousing finale. The twist of the tale is the replacement in the chorus, becoming “…but no hope for me, your last serving daughter”.
Elsewhere there is not a bad song on the album. Made by Maid is gorgeously delicate folk song-writing from rural middle England. Blackberry Stone could be taken from Alas I Cannot Swim with its accusing self-deprecation: “You never did learn to let the little things go; you never did learn to let me be. You never did learn to let little people grow; you never did learn how to see” is bittersweet loveliness. The only moment of self-indulgence is a swirling string instrumental break. In one of the album’s only truly upbeat moments Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) is still a heartbreaking love song, dragging up the Marling-Fink past: “…And I wrote an epic letter to you, and it’s twenty two pages front and back but it’s too good to be used…”. More great harmonies introduce the final nostalgic tearful minute. What He Wrote approaches the same subject from a different angle, another simple guitar and vocal arrangement before Darkness Descends proves that you can add country to the mix and make it sound fresh and interesting.
Closing with the title track, which opens with the line “My husband left me tonight. Left me a poor and lonely wife”, this is not quite the best left to last but it’s close. Another mix of poise and drama, like Connor Oberst at his Bright Eyes best, the song ebbs and flows with neat musical touches right to the last exasperating seconds.
Laura Marling shows extreme versatility on I Speak Because I Can. Every song is a story, and a character, and a memory, all perfectly judged. At times it sounds as if Marling is possessed, channelling the souls of singers long passed, now give new voice. Producer Ethan Johns lets Marling breathe and adds depth when and where it is needed. As a singer leaving her teenage years behind this is the real sound of progress.