On Sunday, September 25th, English folk singer Laura Marling played a concert at Brighton Music Hall. About a third of the way through the set someone in the crowd called out, “You’re so badass!” Having already confessed her discomfort with stage banter, she just smiled, said “Yes!” and flashed a rock on.
Not so coincidentally, SPIN magazine’s review of Marling’s newest album “A Creature I Don’t Know” described her songs as “chillingly badass.” Last year as a newly minted WMFO DJ I played Marling on my first show whose theme was “Badass Women.” So why is this particular recurring modifier (apologies to my mother) so fitting.
Well let’s start with this little statistic: Marling is just 21, one year older than I am. She moved to London at age 16 to join the underground folk scene there, playing alongside Johnny Flynn, Noah and the Whale, and Mumford and Sons. At 17 she released her first full-length album, “Alas I Cannot Swim.”
It was then, in 2008, that I first heard Marling’s song “New Romantic” and fell madly in love with her crisp voice, her dark and fanciful narratives, and her eerily wise lyrics. I was a high school junior composing clichéd love poems about a senior basketball player. She was composing songs like “Your Only Doll” a tale of an abusive relationship with shades of Lolita, or “Ghosts” in which a boy confesses his love to a woman who responds:
“Lover please, do not fall to your knees. Its not like I believe in everlasting love.”
Maybe you’ve guessed I feel pretty inferior. Honestly, you should too. What were you doing at 16? We’re in good company, however. Upon hearing Marling’s 2010 album, “I Speak Because I Can,” Ryan Adams felt so bad about the songs he was composing he actually threw out the vast portion of his forthcoming album, Ashes & Fire, and started from scratch. Ashes & Fire is his 13th effort. I Speak Because I Can was Marling’s second.
Fast-forward about a year and Marling has just released her third album, “A Creature I Don’t Know,” to continued critical acclaim. The critics all point to literary references and recurring themes I had failed to notice. I did not realize the “creature” alluded to in the album’s title recurs not just in the song “The Beast” but throughout the album and represents either Marling herself or all humanity, and the struggle with dark human impulses. Neither had I realized that the Sophia of “Sophia” is actually an ancient Goddess of wisdom and that she is a recurring character as well.
Certainly these facts give me a deeper understanding of Marling’s fanciful and occasionally abstruse song writing, but they hardly seem to matter. What I did notice when I listened to the album for the first time, were the strong influences of Joni Mitchell, as on “Sophia” and “Don’t Ask Me Why” but also the influence of more traditional English shanties as on “All My Rage.” I marveled at Marling’s vocal prowess, her voice soaring into the clearest of highs, crisp and strong in her middle range, and dipping unbelievably low, quiet yet resonant. I loved how she frequently breaks into her speaking voice, a trick much more difficult than it sounds and one that she’s mastered to very dramatic effect. I appreciated the diversity of accompaniment on this album, from the single acoustic guitar on “Night After Night” and the plaintive horn on “I Was Just a Card” to the dark and cacophonous electric guitar on “The Beast.” Mostly though I was, and continue to be, haunted by the words Marling strings together, those certain lines that leap out at me as I listen and go about my day:
“Younger, ever younger in my hunger for abuse”
“I don’t ask for love and I don’t beg for money I’m just asking for grace and forgiveness now honey, don’t ask me why, I’ll tell you no lies”
“Late into the evening they would take each other screaming”
“Oh you were my speaker my innocence keeper, I don’t, night after night, day after day, would you watch my body weaken, my mind drift away”
So we return to that Sunday and the intimate venue in Allston, MA where Marling performed these and older songs in an Iron Maiden T-shirt with the sleeves pushed up over her shoulders. With a band backing her up, Marling’s songs took on an unexpectedly epic feel, and now loom much larger in my mind than they ever had in recordings. Halfway through the set, the band left Marling alone with her guitar. The audience, afraid to sing along and break the reverie, watched rapt as she played through “Goodbye England, Covered in Snow,” a quiet number off I Speak Because I Can that addresses, among other things, Marling’s cynicism about love.
Then, breaking from her set-list, Marling played a new song. “It hasn’t got a name it’s so fresh,” she told us. It was stunning, lyrically simplistic and clearly under-rehearsed but enthralling in its rough nature. “All the little girls are so naïve,” she sang, “ I will not be a victim of romance. I will not be a victim of circumstance. I will not be a victim of chance or circumstance or romance or any man who can get his dirty hands on me.”
As I listened I considered her Iron Maiden T-shirt, as I had been doing for much of the show because somehow it had felt significant, incongruous maybe, or just awesome. I had a vision all of a sudden of a completely different concert, a concert where the singer was screaming those lyrics. An electric guitarist was shredding and the concert-goers were raging and head banging. Maybe that concert would be totally badass, but I wouldn’t be at that concert and neither would Marling. Her songs may be packed full of cynicism, disappointment, and sometimes even rage, but they are also contained, contemplative and there in lies their power.
As if aware of the slightly distressing effect her songs have on a romantic like myself, Marling concluded both her album and her set-list with the upbeat sing-along “All My Rage.” That night, the crowd spilled out of Brighton Music Hall and toward the T station still singing the chorus: “All my rage been gone, I leave my rage to the sea and the sun.” It is a hopeful and uplifting conclusion but probably misleading. If Marling’s unnamed new song is any indication, she’s not done raging yet.