As much as I liked Laura Marling’s debut album, 2008’s Charlie Fink-produced Alas I Cannot Swim, I could never quite shake the impression that it was thinner than I’d like. Marling’s lyrics were interesting, but the songs themselves seemed less strong. Perhaps only ‘Ghosts’ and ‘My Manic and I’ properly burrowed into my songy sub-conscious. Listening back to the album always confounded those expectations, as I found myself remembering the charms of each one in turn. Put the record away, though, and I forgot it yet again.
In a recent interview with The Fly, Marling says of that record, “Charlie was amazing, but he is very much an artist in himself so it was his project. And, although I love everything from the first album, it didn’t truly feel like mine apart from the songs.” The Marling-Fink-Mumford axis has given England the closest thing it has had in years to a proper old-fashioned bit of musical incest, but that Marling sees the work of her ex on Alas I Cannot Swim as stiflling is interesting to me, especially as her new record, I Speak Because I Can, has already captured me – or been captured by me – more than its predecessor ever managed.
On first impressions, not a lot has changed – it’s all still acoustic guitars, quietly defiant vocals and warm sonic depth. But the sound feels richer, somewhere – less fey, and certainly less uniform. On ‘Devil’s Spoke’, Marling’s band swirl like an indie Pentangle; on ‘Made by Maid’ she channels stripped down Joni Mitchell; if ‘Rambling Man’ sounds a bit close to current squeeze Marcus Mumford’s efforts, the delicate highlight ‘Goodbye England’ is more different to that mode than anything on Sigh No More. I Speak Because I Can is unified by Marling’s persona and songwriting, rather than Fink’s conception of sound. This allows a real expansion in all directions – a selection of songs in which each track has its own distinct identity.
It’s too early to ask if ‘Blackberry Stone’ (“You did always say that one day I would suffer … You did always say that I was going places” ) is as good a song as ‘Ghosts’; but taken together, these songs make for a much more immediate – and arresting – collection. If Marling hasn’t previously grabbed you, get this.