An intelligent concept and effortlessly emotive delivery make Laura Marling's latest record, Song For Our Daughter, her most accomplished yet.
It seems peculiar at this point to think that Laura Marling’s career spans hardly a decade. In that time, she has won a Brit award (and been nominated for 4 more), had 3 Mercury Music Prize nominations (including one for her debut record) and even a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album. She’s remained a critical darling and force of nature in modern folk over this entire time and has never once compromised her rootsy, simple, and deeply personal brand of folk music, while also presenting impressive amounts of sonic and thematic progression across her discography.
She’s also never really produced a record that reached above the constant throng of decent indie-folk that floods the pages of every hipster publication each year (aside from the intriguing and often lovely folktronica side project LUMP, with Mike Lindsay of Tuung fame). Song For Our Daughter breaks this pattern with a record that, while still deeply conventional, is also masterfully constructed, immaculately arranged and consistently emotionally potent.
Opener Alexandra is an ideal introduction to the album’s less-is-more approach as it kicks off with little more than Marling’s acoustic, easy going bass and drums and some delightful pedal steel embellishments, never really building beyond that aside from Marling’s stunning multitracked harmonies. Everything is utilised to its greatest potential for a dynamic and affecting folk song where Marling ruminates over Leonard Cohen’s relationship with women – one of the less immediately personal subject matters on the album, but clearly one she’s immensely impassioned by and has no issue entangling herself in with both fondness and poetic charm worthy of the man himself.
'She’s remained a critical darling and force of nature in modern folk over this entire time and has never once compromised her rootsy, simple, and deeply personal brand of folk music'.
Lead single Held Down follows this up with a similar sonic pallet and a healthy increased dosage of the celestially warm harmonies. This is especially true for its achingly sorrowful chorus, which stands as one of the album’s most irresistible and radio ready while also being a deeply sad meditation on abandonment. It’s clear from the get-go that Marling’s truly found the perfect balance between her verbose and thematically tangled lyricism and retro but impeccably handled folk arrangements.
The album’s concept kicks in properly on the third track, Strange Girl. Here, Marling directly addresses her daughter as the titular “strange girl” and encourages her to keep her head up high, in spite of a society that doesn’t value her work and men who will try to define her. What makes this concept most fascinating is that Marling doesn’t actually have a daughter. It’s breath-taking how she manages to speak to this child with such empathy, compassion and wordly wisdom throughout the album, despite the fact they are just a concept used to frame these songs. Marling uses this idea to vocalise truths she said she’s herself struggled with over the years by externalising them, projecting them onto the one person she’d most hate to grow up without hearing them.
Strange Girl is bolstered further by its peppy chord progression and driving bassline, which pull it closer to folk-rock then most of the rest of the material here. The sound is something Dylan might’ve sung over in his more country-inflected period but is pulled off with an instrumental grace and clean arrangement worthy of a great Joni Mitchell song, with a fantastically catchy and upbeat chorus to match.
'It’s breath-taking how she manages to speak to this child with such empathy, compassion and wordly wisdom throughout the album, despite the fact they are just a concept used to frame these songs'.
Elsewhere, the tracklist is peppered with memorable and loveable highs and virtually no misses. The title track is a lowkey contemplative moment with a bit of a country tinge, on which Marling speaks most directly of this future daughter and her hopes and fears as she grows in the world. She intermittently speaks about her in third person, espousing the fears any reasonable parent would have for a daughter in our society; the men who would do her harm and the society that would deny her the freedom she deserves. She then addresses her directly, offering the support and advice she needs while a bed of subtle piano and lush strings cushion the heavy subject matters.
Closer For You presents this daughter instead as a newborn, and is filled with such genuine wonder and emanating love it again becomes difficult to believe its story is entirely fictional. It pairs a patient, loping chord progression and sombre vocal harmonies with perhaps the tenderest lyrics the album has to offer, as Marling intones to the child that she’ll “wear a picture of you/just to keep you safe” – it’s impossible not to feel the raw maternal energy in each syllable. She makes it difficult not to share in the awe and wonder of new life, and communicates the protective need to nurture that all parents feel better than many musicians who are actual parents previously have.
Altogether, in my view, this stands as easily Marling’s best album in an already impressive career. She’s finally honed her craft to the point of producing what could be her first certified classic. A record so completely devoid of pretention and indulgence, it exposes nothing but her pure ear for melody and exceptional songcraft. Through an extremely clever and mature concept she’s found a new emotional potency and sincerity and has been able to craft an album whose themes and ideas reinforce one another throughout, creating a cohesive and often deeply moving experience.
While in future I would like to see Marling experiment with her sound pallet further and maybe stylistically challenge herself a bit more, it can’t be denied that this is one of the finest crops of songs you’re likely to hear this year, especially within the realms of folk music.