Song For Our Daughter (Partisan)
This album is the full flowering of Laura Marling.
It is fearlessly rich and detailed in ways that speak of confidence: confidence with attractiveness in a song as something to display, not disguise; confidence in not just the appeal of a rigorously crafted pop song but her ability to present one as her own.
But it brings the complexity of thought that defines the best pop, as much as it does the best folk and country (both of which can be heard at times here), or anything between: arrangements cultured rather than imposed; language precise and yet encompassing; a broader story told beyond the individual tales.
It doesn’t shy away from bringing in both traditional (or expected) sounds and out-of-context ones, which serve to illustrate how her songwriting – and even more so, her imagination – has soaked up the context and explorations of her British and American circumstances.
But it never allows those sounds to be anything other than enhancements, explorations alongside rather than beyond the reach of the songs: strings, vocal layers high and low, electric and acoustic instruments, flute, hand percussion, all serving the principal instrument, her voice.
Yes, that voice, sounding quietly stunning. She’s singing with such depth and clarity, retaining that slight distance which has always characterised her coolly observational style but yet touching emotions more freely and consistently than she has ever let herself do before.
Take the album’s middle point, in a literal and figurative sense, Blow By Blow.
Piano introduces itself minimally but firmly and then steps back just enough, joined by Marling stretching the lines out with a kind of Edwardian elegance. A brief flash of off-stage backing vocals returns eventually to raise the cloud beneath Marling’s shift higher; a low-key cello and then violins similarly make exploratory entries before returning in fuller form to build a platform, before once more withdrawing to a single instrument.
Meanwhile the story of someone caught in a public moment - maybe one with elements of shame; definitely one of shock and anguish – is played out with a kind of wisdom earnt along the way.
After a slap of an opening couplet (“I don’t know what else to say, I think I did my best/Mama’s on the phone already talking to the press”) the narrator tries to steady. “Tell them I’m doing fine/Underplay distress,” she sings, pointing out as the adjustments begin that “No one was prepared/But we all perform like we done it all before.”
But if it’s true that “the hardest thing to learn is what you get from what you lose”, as she tries to tell herself, that doesn’t protect. And definitely doesn’t save. “I feel a fool so do you/For believing it could work out like some things do.”
It’s a song which walks between fullness and leanness as much as between the façade of control and the crumbling inside of that façade, and it is so powerful without having to push overt buttons.
As with the way The End Of The Affair, which might once have just been presented with bass and guitar the sole companionable additions, comes instead with a faint electronic hum to tighten the atmosphere, then a swell of voices to stretch the fabric, it’s evidence of a songwriter in peak mode, making exactly the right structural and sonic choices.
This is even clearer when you see how the album’s elevations come from what you might call the secondary elements of each song. The solidly floating echo vocals in Held Down shimmering over the hard snap of the drums and woody bass; the graceful strings of the folk-format Fortune opening a window each time they join the finger-picked guitar; the western plains backing singers in the shuffling, slightly New Orleans-flavoured Strange Girl holding two thoughts at once; the just out of shot slide guitar and the choir of angels in Alexandra; the low male voices providing the ballast in For You that finishes almost as a country/sea shanty blend – all of them you could argue non-essential, except they are crucial.
If this music and this sound reflect Marling in the very best of form, it is only appropriate for lyrics which are little pared back, for her, and yet contain multitudes. Not least among them the wisdom to show rather than tell.
That matters, as Marling has called this album something of a book of advice to a daughter to come. Or a daughter imagined from Marling’s own past. But rather than a set of men behaving badly/society behaving appallingly narratives, or some this is how to be/this is what to do lessons, she presents stories that capture people in motion and the meaning is within them.
In The End Of The Affair, the final exchanges between lovers hovers over a dimming but not extinguished fire, the final lines – “I love you, goodbye/Now let me live my life” - not as cold as it sounds, but sliding in a note of functionality after the sliding scale of “Threw my head unto his chest/I think we did our best”.
Things are tougher in the ruminative folk of Hope We Meet Again, but still bitterness is inflicted on (by a man who “is people shy but his words are good” until those words become “acid tongued, serpent toothed”) rather than rising within (a woman who knows he “just threw your pieces /they washed up on my shore” but does not let that define everything, ending by telling him in absentia “I hope we meet again/Hope you never change”).
Even in Only The Strong Survive, which works as the most “lesson I have to pass on” track through the repetition of the title, Marling is poised between being dispassionate and thoughtful, rather than didactic. While Held Down sees someone who might normally be the runner from a relationship be the one left, weighing the value of being sanguine against the truth of how much indifference hurts more, and the judgment is ours to make.
For all that I’ve said so far, there’s a lot more still to draw from Song For Our Daughter than these first dozen or so listens have revealed, and I expect to be reshaping my response for some time. That’s an exciting prospect.