Twenty is the new 347
Laura Marling had just turned 18 when she released her 2008 debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, but it seemed like she’d already lived four or five lifetimes. By then, she had somehow digested the entire canon of British folk music along with her guitar lessons, in the process becoming world-weary enough to write lines like “The gods that he believes never fail to disappoint me” and “Don’t cry child, you’ve got so much more to live for / Don’t cry child, you’ve got something I would die for.”
And in between touring the globe and being touted as the young queen of a new-folk revival (and shattering the heart of her then-boyfriend/producer, Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink, indirectly giving us one of 2009’s best symphonic breakup albums, First Days of Spring), she found it in herself to make yet another gorgeous, melancholy, old-souled record.
Despite its uncanny emotional weight, Alas has its moments of glittering girlishness and sounds at times like it was recorded in an upstairs bedroom at her parents’ house. I Speak Because I Can trades in references to broken dolls for tales of real live babies found in the forest and the yearning for a “Tap at my Window,” for the love of a “Rambling Man.” Fellow new-folk vanguards Mumford & Sons (who released their own excellent album earlier this year) reprise their occasional role as Marling’s backup band, providing urgent, dirty-fingernailed accompaniment—banjos, shuddering organ and occasional brotherly backing vocals—to her lovely, blustery voice and pace-setting guitar (strummed and finger-picked, both with increasing confidence). Marling avoids both precocity and self-seriousness, even when she sings, on the wrenching “Hope in the Air,” “I forgave you your shortcomings and ignored your childish behavior / Laid a kiss on your head and before I left said, ‘Stay away from fleeting failure.’”