There was a time when Later… was worth watching from start to finish. This then morphed into a time when it was worth taping so that you could skip the odd poor performance. These days, it seems a programme well suited to Sky+, so sporadic are the truly captivating performances in any one series of the one remaining music show on telly. One Saturday morning in November 2007, I was flicking hastily through the previous night’s episode so as to find the two songs performed by Richard Hawley. I must have been in a charitable mood as, for those artists I didn’t really know, I was allowing each song about thirty seconds to impress itself upon me before I pressed down on the fast forward button again. So utterly beguiling was Laura Marling’s performance of ‘New Romantic’ that by the time the song was finished it was actually rewind that my thumb was hovering over. I played the performance again before grabbing the good lady to confirm that this was indeed something pretty special. I completely forgot that I was waiting on a second song by Richard Hawley and went charging off to the computer to attempt to find anything and everything that featured this stunning voice.
It wasn’t long before the ‘My Manic And I’ EP dropped through the letterbox and went straight on the turntable. ‘My Manic And I’ and ‘Night Terror’ were clearly both terrific, stirringly atmospheric pieces even then but it was that one song, ‘New Romantic’, that I was fixated with. Twice in the song, Laura sings, “and I’m sorry to whichever man should meet my sorry state. Watch my sturdy, lonesome gait and beware: I will never love a man, ’cause love and pain go hand in hand, and I can’t do it, again.” There’s just something about the way she delivers it that surely makes every man listening to her there and then wants to prove her wrong and make her reconsider.
I have never seen an artist captivate a room in quite the way Marling did in Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms last year. The hushed silence between songs as she languidly meandered through the rigmarole of structured chat with the audience was palpably electric. Everyone was hanging on her every ‘erm’ and as she offered us an early listen to what would, some thirteen months later, be her next single, ‘Goodbye England’, the same reverence being meted out to the songs we all knew was present. No chit-chat during the new stuff, no dashing off for a piss. She had us all captivated, and I suspect she knew it. Some performers just have that indefinable something and Marling has more of that something than most.
‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, the album that appeared in a slightly gaudy cardboard box in February 2008, was every bit as good as anyone had any right to hope it would be. I was initially dismayed to find that ‘New Romantic’ hadn’t made it, but it was pretty quickly clear that it wouldn’t have sat well with the more fleshed out sound of the album. I rather like that it’s out there to be found by those who love the album but missed the early singles – a very special treat in the wilderness. That fleshed out sounding album is a remarkable feat by anyone’s standards, but that idea that this is the sound of an eighteen year old making their first record is plain intimidating. The rich, textured voices belies the lack of living and the music is a complex web of folk, pop and rock that delights at every unexpected twist and turn.
‘Night Terror’ comes with its own brooding sense of foreboding and really manages to get under the skin like well-crafted songs can sometimes do. ‘Cross Your Fingers’ is, conversely, an upbeat, chipper pop track that confirms a more interesting musical palette than most of Marling’s contemporaries. ‘You’re No God’ builds to a strangely euphoric singalong, while hidden last track, ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, offers a message for life with its, “work more, earn more, live more, have more fun,” refrain.
I could easily sit here and list each song’s defining (and fabulous) characteristic, but I think your time might be better spent with the record itself. A brief word about packaging. The initial version of the album came as a ‘Songbox’, with wrapping paper, a board game, several postcards and a beautiful lyric booklet and a gig ticket that sadly went unused. I’ve since added in the ‘My Manic And I’ book that came out at the same time as the EP and is worth tracking down, along with a pack of Laura Marling branded playing cards, which are rather less essential. This unique approach to releasing a record only served to further endear her to her target audience and we lapped it up. Similarly, there are two different vinyl pressings available – UK and US, though both are now quite hard to find – with one providing a CD containing a live performance at London’s Union Chapel and the other a DVD with a tour documentary. Both are well worth the cash outlay and the (UK, in particular) vinyl pressing quality is superb. It really is a remarkable debut and Laura Marling really does have as stunning a voice as I suggested at the start of this piece. She is beguiling, bewitching and in possession of a beautiful sound. She is surely capable of great things. Indeed, ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ is the first of such great things.