We Will Learn To Feel Quite Clean In This New Skin by Farrah Field
Some friends and I were recently exchanging embarrassing stories from adolescence and it was no surprise that most of these stories ended with some form of appreciation of books and music—the two things that got us through the sticky, dorky periods of our lives. I don’t think this need for music was all that unique—it’s a basic need to have someone sing how we feel (sound plus words equals getting lost equals being found). What is rare is being the young person making music. I would’ve never touched an instrument on a stage in front of other people when I was seventeen. Young performers and entertainers, the boobs-out and biceps kind, delivered through the System of Normal corporate media over-saturation, come and go, but young musicians, actual musicians, are the ones we tend to grow with. They are so bafflingly gifted with their awkward courage, their blossoming ability to collaborate (read the liner notes of any record to know just how many people are involved in the process), their willingness to experiment with sound, to not wait until they “grow up,” their keen insight taken from their musical influences and the determination to emulate them, and their early yet strong motivation to make art. Laura Marling, a singer from London, makes music with quite possibly all of these qualities, with a soulful voice and a provocative nature to boot. Although she is now twenty years old, she completed her debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, at the age of eighteen.
When I was younger, I wanted to spit every time someone said, “you’re so young.” Why not say, “all I noticed about you is your age and I’m older than it.” So it’s with great hesitation that I point out Laura Marling’s age, but I must admit it sort of attracted me to her music. My boyfriend and I were driving to Massachusetts and we turned on the radio with the hopes of hearing a traffic report, but caught a Laura Marling song instead. She was playing her wordsy, folk but not folksy songs and was being interviewed by David Garland for the show, “Spinning on Air, which was recorded two weeks before her eighteenth birthday. Alas I Cannot Swim came out not too long after that. If having an album out by the age of eighteen isn’t impressive enough, Marling had been in the popular English band Noah and the Whale prior to making her album. After hearing her sing, I was awfully surprised to find out how young she was. Age—the years you are, the years you have left, and the time period in which you were born—is something I often think of while listening to Marling’s music, which coming from a young person or not, is some of the smartest music I’ve ever heard.
“Her music is interesting but not complicated, but a complicated experience,” David Garland said on air. His succinct description encapsulates the pulling and tugging of Marling’s music: personal as well as abstract, poetic, planned yet surprising, and observational yet private. Her music generates the same kind of thinking that reading a poem does. She said in the 2008 interview that she wanted Alas I Cannot Swim to be “one consistent piece of work,” to cohere thematically. Her website, in fact, used to describe a limited run of a song box that was sold with the cd, including little handmade trinkets and a songbook, furthermore stressing the idea of her album as an object, as a well put together thing.
The arrangement of the album itself was clearly important to her and she somewhat shyly yet knowledgeably described the lyrical thematic movement (water, birds, love, death) and musical arrangement, a “purposeful lift” from minor to major. Indeed Alas I Cannot Swim moves musically first through songs that have a sort of chorus of back-up voices, to the soulful alone toughness of her voice, eventually adding other sounds (birds, footsteps, more instruments, more voices), and finally leaving us in low registers.
Lyrically, she delves into love and meaningful relationships, death and rebirth. She often explores fraught relationships, trying to keep up with unpredictable people and particularly in the first song, “Ghosts,” investigating lovers’ history.
She tickles her songs with pronoun play, most successfully in “My Manic and I,” she sings, “I can’t control you/ I don’t know you well/ These are the reasons I think that you’re/I’m/we’re ill,” describing with simple wordplay the snarled entanglements of being with someone who’s out of control, being the one who chooses unhealthy people, and the combinations thereof.
The album takes on rebirth and death with a bold face. Marling’s songs may never outright declare what it is she wants exactly, but it’s pretty clear she doesn’t want to be dead. Her songs time and time again reveal a fear of turning into one’s parents and reject the high and mighty version of God. In “Failure,” she emphasizes that if God made her in his image, then he’s a failure. The concept isn’t self-deprecating as it is self-correcting, self-aware in the sense that it supports active living. (Blind faith is a sort of sinking, a giving up). Besides, how are women supposed to live in “his” image? If that’s the case, we don’t stand a fighting chance. (Why can’t God be hermaphroditic or at least fully half and half? Doesn’t seem fair).
Marling is incredibly invested in the idea of rebirth as a burst of personal strength, a self-baptism if you will. Water and birds are the glue working in her songs’ periphery. Water tends to serve as a measure of distance. “There’s a boy across the river but alas I cannot swim.” Everything is out of reach—the lover you’d rather have, the person you’d rather be, the fauna around you both wild and tame for its daily accountability, in other words, birds. They’re all-knowing with their beautiful songs and their sense of direction, sense of the seasons. Birds, however, are a dark subject matter. You can’t touch them, can’t cage them, and they have the feet of monsters. Birds are iconic Laura Marling imagery, in the sense that there is a dark side to most of her songs. They may be constructed like pretty folk songs, but pretty frightening depths are composed in these songs.
For instance, “The Captain and the Hourglass,” is one such Laura Marling song that attains weird levels.
[The Captain And The Hourglass]
In a Melville sort of way, the title alone suggests the itch for adventure marked or stifled by the passage of time. Marling mulls over falling into water, which among other options, could very well indicate being so far to one side that you’re off the boat and in the water. (My father likes to describe liberals this way). In this song, she introduces the elements (wind and rain) in a holding-her-fists-up-to-God sort of way, a rain-on-me-I-can-take-it way, and an I’m-not-afraid-of-you-you-big-blue-sky way. What threads together the song is Marling’s most memorable, exemplary lyrics. “Inside every man is a heart of sand/ You can see it in his face/ He’ll tick tick tick tick tick tick tick away.” The spell of this song is in these words, the ticking away of time, growing older, seeping with a violent regret as though this song could be played while reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. The use of “captain” is pretty witty too, juxtaposed against God’s judgments, and instilled with mocking self-mockery of the man who thinks he’s in charge, but is really slipping away. After all, who is in charge anyway?
Late last year I saw Laura Marling perform for the CMJ Music Marathon. Her live performance is incredibly different than her record. First of all, her accent is not what I expected at all. I guess I prepared myself to hear something hard-edged and Londonish, but her accent was rather grassy and rolling. In any case, I couldn’t believe how different she sounded during her show, commanding the stage with a voice much bigger and more resonant than the album suggested. I don’t know whether this is saying something about recording technology or how artists cut and mix their first albums. I also don’t know if Laura Marling’s vocal talent has been developing because of her constant touring, and growing a bit older, but there was a noticeable difference between her voice on the album and her voice during the live performance. Live, Laura Marling isn’t fussy or showy. Accompanying her was a cellist who added a lush quality to all of the songs. I know she could have comfortably filled out the room, alone with her guitar. Laura Marling simply opens her mouth in a seemingly effortless way and out comes beautiful sound. Her second album, I Speak Because I Can is due out soon.
The Girls Talk of Troilus
Consider the possibility.
Everyone likes poop.
The weight of his armor equaled three of us.
We learn how to love during lessons.
We want someone who can handle us.
We sit on the wall and watch him pass.
From the book with the war and a woman.
What are you supposed to do besides what you have to?
He loves older women. They were lovers through the gapped stones.
Our parents have that look again.
Replacement. Kneecap eyes. Dress with only a center.
We have everything to look forward to when we grow up.
Farrah Field’s poems have appeared in many publications including the Mississippi Review, Typo, Harp & Altar, La Petite Zine, Copper Nickel, Effing Magazine, and Ploughshares and are forthcoming in Mantis, Cannibal, and Memorious. Rising, her first book of poems, won Four Way Books’ 2007 Levis Prize. She lives in Brooklyn where she co-hosts a reading series called Yardmeter Editions. She blogs at adultish.blogspot.com.
Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com. Check out previous POP essays here: http://pop.coldfrontmag.com/