Nu folk’ happened while I wasn’t looking. Long after I had stopped reading the weekly music press, and before the appearance of Spotify and Youtube made it possible to find out without cost about any passing musical phenomenon. I might have read about it in the Guardian Weekend section, but if I did, it went in one ear and right out of the other. Even the seemingly inescapable Mumford and Sons passed me by for a fair while, it was only when a friend who had emigrated to the US remarked in an e-mail that local radio was awful, and not only that, but the worst band, the one that he really never wanted to hear again in his life, had followed him across the water from the UK and they were called Mumford and Sons that I think I became aware who they were.
When Laura Marling’s second album, I Speak Because I Can, was released, an old friend got in touch and was rather insistent that I should give it a listen. Which seemed odd, both because my dim notion of who Laura Marling was amounted to ‘some Kate Nash/Lily Allen copy but with acoustic guitars’ and because said friend was usually into abstruse electronica. Though she did introduce me to Half Man Half Biscuit.
So I paid attention. And she was absolutely right about that Laura Marling album. It had a slightly gothic, eldritch quality and I am just a sucker for the droning sound of guitars in open tunings. I also remember being struck at the time that it was possibly the first album I had really liked by a child of the 1990s. And so of course I was keen to hear what else she had done and looked up her debut on Spotify. And I listened to it once, and never again. It’s not that I thought it terrible, it just seemed rather dull. It all sounds like it’s in standard EADGBE tuning, and it’s a bit happy-clappy, the kind of thing I could imagine a group of kids at a Christian summer camp coming up with (though, to be fair, only if said kids had an unusually acute ear for a good melody).
So coming back to it, did it win me over? Not exactly. But to be fair, listening to it a few times over the last week, I can hear clues that she had it in her to become a much more interesting artist. She was, after all, only eighteen when this record was released, and so probably younger still when much of it was written. How many really great records have been made by teenagers, after all? (Oh, yeah, um, one of my all time favourite records was. And if I thought about it harder, there are probably lots).
The opener, Ghosts is a very good three minute pop song. It’s even got a decent middle-eight. It is pretty much her signature tune, and when I saw her at the Usher Hall shortly after she had released Once I was an Eagle it was one of just two tracks she played from her first record. I’m sure she’s sick of it now, but there are plenty of songwriters who go their whole career without ever writing a single infectious earworm of a tune.
There’s not really anything else on the record which comes close to hitting that mark. I did rather like the minute and a half interlude of Crawled Out of the Sea and was torn between wishing it were a little longer and being thankful that she, or her producer, had the self-awareness to know that this kind of acoustic folk-pop rarely benefits from being dragged out, and every song comes in under the four minute mark. The longest of these, My Manic and I, is the most structurally interesting song on the record and a hint of things to come: that she would, in a few years, be quite comfortable opening her fourth album with an eighteen minute raga influenced song in four movements. The strings on Night Terrors remind me a little of the sonic atmospherics she’s able to conjure in her later records.
But there’s an awful lot here though that’s really rather unremarkable. Your Only Doll, Dora is a rather cliched kitchen-sink drama about domestic abuse. Old Stone sounds a touch overwrought to my ears and the traces of estuary English in her voice on Failure do rather leave me wondering why others seem so upset at her adoption of an American accent in later records. She sounds far better impersonating Stevie Nicks or Joni Mitchell than pretending to be cockney.
I think my problem with this record is that, where her later albums sound like a rather wonderful amalgam of what I suspect might be her parents’ record collection – I can hear hints of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Fleetwood Mac, even PJ Harvey in her accessible Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea phase – this just sounds like another nu-folk record.
Highlight: Ghosts, It Crawled out of the Sea, Night Terrors. But really, go dig out Once I was an Eagle instead. Or perhaps I Speak Because I Can.