How do you follow a debut record of such quality, such depth and such beguiling songwriting that nobody was able to believe you were still in your teens when you made it? With relative ease, it would seem. At the risk of getting repetitive, it’s hard to believe she made this record whilst still in her teens too.
‘I Speak Because I Can’ was largely recorded live to tape, Laura Marling and her assembled band rattling through these tunes in one room under the guidance of the esteemed Ethan Johns. It should be noted that there’s a little less jangle than on the debut and this is a rather more intense affair. Opener ‘Devil’s Spoke’ is an all out folk assault, before the quieter textures of ‘Made By Maid’ and ‘Blackberry Stone’ move into view, the latter a rather more fulsome rendering than the b-side incarnation which previously accompanied ‘Cross Your Fingers’. Between these two sits the first of the album’s true gems, ‘Rambling Man’. A fine example of how to build a song slowly but surely, with no need for epic strings or ludicrous guitar breaks, it is also home to one of Marling’s best vocal performances to date. She languidly curls her larynx around the opening verse, gathering in intensity as the band come shambling in and yet still holding back until the final renderings of the chorus. This transcendent vocal flourish follows a quite startling breakdown in proceedings in which, with almost eerie conviction, Marling tells us that, “it’s funny how the first chords that you come to are the minor notes that come to serenade you. It’s hard to accept yourself as someone you don’t desire, as someone you don’t want to be.” The song seems to suggest that the character in the song, be it autobiographical or otherwise, is happy to not fit in, provided they be accepted for who they truly are. The almost euphoric chorus, reminiscent of ‘Blue’-era Joni, belies the rather more complex undercurrent.
‘Alpha Shallows’ appears in a more concise and haunting fashion than its previous outing on the ‘Night Terror’ single quite managed, while last year’s Christmas single ‘Goodbye England’ is not hindered by its festive associations and the refrain about never loving England more "than when covered in snow" seems more than a little prescient at this end of 2010. ‘Hope In The Air’ continues the moody and intense celtic folk tones first established by album opener, ‘Devil’s Spoke’. ‘What He Wrote’, on the other hand, tells the haunting tale of separated lovers over a sparse acoustic backdrop. ‘The waves came and stole him and took him to her’, sings Marling, and by God she sounds every bit the wronged wife. It is this subtle but quite magnificent vocal dexterity that sets ‘I Speak Because I Can’ apart from ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, in the same way that that debut was a subtle, but notable, shift on from the sound of her early demos and EP. Progression is obvious, but in a fashion that I can only imagine will win favour with devotees of that stunning initial outing.
‘Darkness Descends’, replete with beautiful, double-tracked vocal, has a levity of touch that is welcome after the intensity of ‘What He Wrote’. The galloping drums are back on what is perhaps the most obvious indication of the album having been recorded with the whole troupe playing together in the same place. There’s a gentle, rough-around-the-edges feel to the arrival of some of the backing vocals and the halting of bits of percussion that is utterly, utterly charming. You’re probably smiling by this point. Album closer, ‘I Speak Because I Can’ quickly puts paid to that, opening with the line, “my husband left me last night, left me a poor and lonely wife.” The title track builds to a suitably wrought conclusion before simply stopping and bring the album to an atmospheric, anticipatory and downright amazing conclusion.
‘I Speak Because I Can’ is a less immediate record than ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ and it is a step on from that record’s sound also, but it is a superb second offering and of a consistently high standard. While it doesn’t scream instant classic at you, after a dozen or so listens you’ll feel like there was never a time you hadn’t heard it. And that will make you feel good.