This blog post is an apology on two fronts.
Firstly, it is an apology to haters of ‘nu-folk’. I am about to say something that will sicken you to your core. Something that, in truth, sickens me too.
Secondly, it is an apology to ‘nu-folk’ singer-songwriter Laura Marling. I had you wrong, love. I hold my hands up and admit it. I WAS WRONG.
Because, and there’s not really an easy way to put this, Once I Was An Eagle by Laura Marling is… *deep breath*… my album of 2013… *ducks to avoid angry indie types swinging guitars at his head*
Of course, everything about the genre that spawned her is wrong. ‘Folk’ should be Martin Carthy singing about long dead aristocrats, or Ewan MacColl getting our socialist dander up, not public schoolboys in braces and waistcoats jamming to Daddy’s Paul Simon records. I, like any other self-respecting music fan, cry inwardly every time Mark E. Smith‘s favourite mongoloid Irish folk band break another sales record.
And Marling herself – that’s Laura Beatrice Marling, daughter of the fifth Marling Baronet, alumna of a Quaker boarding school – comes with more than an air of posh fakery. I had her down, with what you must agree is some justification, as a little posh girl playing at folk music. The fact that she stepped out with M**cus M**ford and N**h with his flaming Whale didn’t do her no favours neither. In fact, the whole incestuous West London nu-folk scene smacked of musical feudalism – posh kids repossessing the authenticity of the people and using it for their own aggrandisement. It was like someone had bought out the centuries-old boozer at the end of your street and turned it into an All Bar One. Someone needed to tell these poshos that the only reason folk is played on fiddles and guitars is because after the workers had grafted eighteen hours on great-grandaddy’s farm for tuppence a year and arrived back at their stinking hovel, there wasn’t a lot of cash or space for a grand piano. If the laird’s son whips out an accordion and does a jig, it isn’t a jolly good wheeze, it’s borderline offensive.
So when Laura Beatrice Marling stepped on stage at the Cambridge Folk Festival a few years back, I gave her five minutes to impress me. She failed, and I went for a mulled cider and a doze in the sun. Champion. Call me back when there’s some proper music on.
But then, for whatever reason, I gave her new album a spin. No idea why. It probably came up on the ‘new music’ list on Spotify. So imagine my surprise, as Jeremy Clarkson might say, when it wasn’t a nauseatingly vapid pile of reconstituted horse sputum (with added fiddles).
It is a quite beautiful album. Beautifully written and beautifully recorded. It is properly crafted too, one track flowing seamlessly into another in little song suites. Someone has really thought about it. And when I say ‘someone’ I am pleased to say I mean her and her producer, and not some focus group or bunch of marketing
executives. It should have won the Mercury Prize.
In her hands on this album, the acoustic guitar sounds like an instrument of possibility again. Sure, she’s just mucking about with open tunings, but there are textures to her playing that recall Davy Graham or Richard Thompson, albeit without their supreme virtuosity. There’s little touches of Spanish gypsy guitar. There’s occasional flashes of Eastern influence. And there’s lyrical bite too. Lines like ‘You should begone beast, begone from me’, ‘I wouldn’t ask you to behave for me / I know there’s no hope in hell’, ‘I am purpose and regret / You’re a feeling I’ll forget / What will I do then?’ It is the sound of a girl who has grown up and lived a life, a universe away from the superficial good-time knees-ups of her former squeezes. At 23, she’s probably still too young to realise she’s playing music beyond her years, and if she’s sounding this world weary now, imagine what dark heaviness she’ll be coming out with at 30 or 40. Them’s some albums I want to live to hear.
Every so often a song comes along that is so good, I will listen to it dozens and dozens times in a row like some obsessive compulsive and yet somehow never tire of it. This was one from a few years back, this was another, this still gets played about ten times a week. Somehow Marling has got at least three of them on this album alone. For example…
Normally, I deliberately broadcast my Spotify habits all over facebook, as revenge on those with Candy Crush Saga obsessions or overactive urges to display photos of their dinner. But this year, I’ve disabled the Spotify social sharing feature while I go on a Marling binge, to hide the depth of my nu-folk shame.
It is, on the negative side, a couple of songs too long. There’s also the occasional moment where her intonation grates as trying too hard. And when I actually see her on videos, strumming idly with her thousand yard stare, I can’t help but feel she’s play acting. In fact, and although I condemn violence in all forms, I want to grab her stupid posh, tousled hair and shout in her stupid, posh face, “GET A BLEEDING GRIP!” But that’s my issue, so let’s not quibble. On record, Laura Marling has made my favourite ‘folk’ album since James Yorkston‘s Moving Up Country (with quotations round ‘folk’ since even Yorkston may be too outre for the folk purist). In fact, I will go out on a limb here and say Once I Was An Eagle is the best solo female folk album since the days of Sandy Denny. I want to hate her, but music has won the day. Well done, Laura Marling, and sorry again.