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When the British singer-songwriter Laura Marling first emerged in the mid-aughts as a 16-year-old prodigy, she seemed like an old soul. A leading light of the so-called “nu-folk” scene — a somewhat backhanded term invented by the English press to describe acts like Mumford & Sons and Noah And The Whale, which she briefly joined — Marling looked and sounded like she stepped off the cover of an old Fairport Convention LP. With her striking, wise-sounding vocals, penetrating confessional lyrics, and lilting traditional melodies, she made records that already sounded like they had existed for 40 years before she even exited her teens.
But even as Marling continued to grow her audience on 2013’s epochal Once I Was An Eagle, 2015’s underrated Short Movie, and 2017’s Grammy-nominated Semper Femina, she began to experience the side effects of launching a music career at such as young age. The wise-beyond-her-years quality of her voice, as well as the incisiveness of her songwriting, belied a tendency to youthfully quest in her personal life. At age 21, she relocated to Los Angeles, a decision that she later confided was an attempt to find herself as she entered young adulthood. She was also less famous in the US than at home in the UK. She seized this relative anonymity, cutting her hair and taking a job as a yoga instructor. Reflecting on this period years later, Marling admitted that she “had no identity. It was really, really, really difficult,” she says. “I was socially bankrupt.”
Another period of significant self-reflection preceded the making of Marling’s latest album out today, Song For Our Daughter. She moved back home to London, living not far from her oldest sister and niece; another sister moved into Marling’s home. She also decided to pursue a master’s degree in psychoanalysis, both because she was interested in that field of study and also as a way to make up for the time she lost by not going to college. (In an interesting parallel, Marling’s fellow singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten has also taken to pursing a psychology degree in her spare time away from music.) Even when Marling has worked in music in the years since Semper Femina, it was outside of her earnest folkie lane — she collaborated with Tunng’s Mike Lindsay in the experimental outfit LUMP, and composed scores for acclaimed British theater director and playwright Robert Icke.
The relatively settled nature of Marling’s life at the moment — as well as her interest in psychoanalysis — seems to have inspired her work on Daughter, which joins the ranks of Once I Was An Eagle and Short Movie as one of her very best albums. Marling has described Daughter as a song cycle addressed to the child that she might have one day, in which the prospective mother unloads wisdom and warnings about “all of the bullshit that she might be told,” as she sings on the title track. But at the risk of psychoanalyzing the psychoanalysis student, Song For Our Daughter also evokes what Carl Jung once described as the divine or inner child — these songs seem to be Marling’s way of dialoguing with previous versions of herself, and charting the progress she’s made as an artist and human being.
In that way Song For Our Daughter feels both like a culmination of Marling’s catalogue up to this point, and also like something of a fresh start. On the former point, Marling has returned to long-time musical partners Ethan Johns and Dom Monks, who assist in giving Marling’s songs that old-time early ’70s British folk feel, with lustrous acoustic strums playing off sumptuously recorded string sections in the manner of her best-regarded work.
But at the same time, this feels like the least fussed-over of her albums. Marling apparently valued immediacy above all else, often sticking to first takes and vigorous, straight-forward arrangements. While the album wasn’t recorded under quarantine — though our current crisis did bump up the album’s release by several months, coming just under a week after Marling announced the LP via her Instagram — it does feel more or less like someone singing to you from the other side of the kitchen table.
This casualness suits the songs, which are among the most conversational and direct that she’s written. The album’s catchiest number, “Strange Girl,” has the off-hand pop durability of a deathless Sheryl Crow radio hit. (The song’s standout warning — “Stay low, keep brave” — also functions as the album’s nutgraf.) “For You” is dreamier, but it has a similar resolve that speaks to a more grown-up perspective. “Love is not the answer,” she sings, “but the line that marks the start.”
Marling also plays off the work of others in fascinating ways. On the stunning “Alexandra,” Marling playfully engages with Leonard Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving,” writing about the titular protagonist from a feminine perspective, while the tough but tender takes a line lifted from one of Ickes’ plays — “love is a sickness cured by time” — and spins it into a bittersweet lesson about navigating life’s peaks and valleys.
Marling’s adherence to tradition and her recent artistic and personal growth achieve a kind of perfect harmony on the album’s best song, “Fortune.” Set to an elegantly finger-picked guitar line that evokes the loveliest ancient British folk melodies, “Fortune” is inspired by Marling’s own mother keeping a “running away fund” when she was younger, which she spins into a breathtakingly pretty story song that lands on a tragic denouement I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. In “Fortune,” you can hear the budding folkie Marling once was and the supremely skilled master she has become, playing a song that is simple yet profound, like a personal journey through life.
Song For Our Daughter is out now on Partisan Records. Get it here.