Laura Marling released her last album while I was wandering through London with my heart breaking at half-speed. I was trying to preserve everything around me in amber, but at some point the days turned against me and I had to (at least privately) admit that I was treating zombified relationships like flesh-and-blood. I would pipe Semper Femina straight into my ears each morning while I walked to my silent, deskbound internship, and then again on the walk to my daily bowl of bank-breaking pho. “Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?” she would ask in the middle of “Wild Fire.” “Absolutely not,” I would think. Rinse and repeat.
Three years later comes Song for Our Daughter, Marling’s rush-released salve for a population ravaged by disease and saddled with an uncertain future unlike the “uncertain futures” we’re used to.
Like everyone, I’ve been stuck at home for over a month, and beyond the obvious, it’s complicated one of my foundational myths. From the first stirrings of adolescence up to the present moment, I’ve been determined to live out my adult years in a city. I grew up in a log cabin, which is one of those things that seems apocryphal but is literally true, and because of either the actual lived experience of growing up in that log cabin or the meaning I’ve since assigned to it, I decided to want the city. To want the superficial signifiers of an Urban Life — good booze, nice furniture, an eclectic record collection — and the less Instagrammable benefits: opportunities to meet people by chance; a sense of pace I don’t have to invent myself; the privilege of watching other people living their lives right in front of me.
Now I do live in the city, and all of that is gone. When I was in London and it felt like the center had stopped holding, I would walk. I would leave my basement bedroom and go outside and look at something old or tall or beautiful, and I would think, “At least I’m a person who got to see this up close.” Now my walks, which I take daily, are rote and nervous. I go outside just because it isn’t inside, and most of the beautiful buildings are shuttered, or else packed with people who are just as scared as I am. Fellow sidewalk strollers are no longer potential coconspirators; they’re threats.
So I sit at home and I stretch and I call my friends and I listen to music. I knew when Marling’s new record was announced that I would not stop thinking about it for weeks, which I haven’t, and I knew that from the opening notes, it would shoot me straight back to London, which it did. It’s helped me link the awful present back to the awful past, which is probably my own facile, pattern-obsessed way of telling my own story, but then so it is.
It’s also jolted me back into a frame of mind I’ve been losing sight of more and more in this mess: it reminded me I was a writer.
All admiration is hyperbole, so let me say this: Marling might be our best lyrical storyteller. Her songs are elliptical and opaque, deliberately unfinished but so careful that you can’t help scrutinizing every word. The pieces interlock perfectly but the finished image is smudged, so you take the whole thing apart and reconstruct it again at half-speed, hoping to wind up with a clearer image this time. Are her narrators her? An idealized self? A character? Two characters singing to each other? Every time I hit play on one of her songs, no matter how well I know the words (I have, may the court show, transcribed every lyric from the new record into my notes app, which I’ve been doing ritualistically since I was 16), I’m blindsided by her use of negative space. Like most people, I think, I’m hard up for inspiration right now, but every one of Marling’s songs rakes me across the mug and says, “You wish you could do this, don’t you?”
“Alexandra,” the first track on Song for Our Daughter, is a bright, brilliant response to Leonard Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving.” It’s also a mission statement. “Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving,” Cohen croons with Sharon Robinson on the latter song, bidding farewell to a muse who “sleeps upon your skin” and “wakes you with a kiss.” “Say goodbye to Alexandra lost.” Marling isn’t satisfied. “I need to know/Where did Alexandra go?” she insists. And the “I” is her, a curious character she’s built, the album as a whole — stuffed with questions she never answers. Like, for example, the inciting incident that brings us “Blow by Blow,” the sole piano ballad in Marling’s catalogue and, not kidding, probably one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. “I don’t know what else to say, I think I did my best,” she begins, teeing us up for a maudlin relationship autopsy. Then: “Mama’s on the phone, already talking to the press.” Oh?
I’m not sure what it is about this ambiguity that gets me, but it always does. I guess I should also say that she’s actually much less ambiguous on Song for Our Daughter than she’s ever been: the title track is a straightforward ode to an imagined girl reared in a culture stacked against her (“You’ll cut your way through it somehow”); lead single “Held Down” is a ghostly, wounded kiss-off with the sort of straightforward story verses Marling usually skirts. But even then, her lucidity is so bracing that it’s almost uncanny. The delivery becomes its own mystery. How can a 30 year old sound like this: elemental, conversational, at once ice-cold and (to borrow a key word from Semper Femina) soothing?
Now I listen to Song for our Daughter on my walks, the way I used to listen to Semper Femina. I’ve been leaving my apartment later and later in the day, pushing my midafternoon neighborhood treks into the territory of near-warm spring nights. I border a residential part of the city that’s quiet and still enough so that, if I leave after sundown, I can see stars and hear cars rush by on distant thoroughfares. Everything collapses in the way things do when you’re by yourself: then and now are both now, the music you’re hearing is and isn’t coming straight from the landscape. “Love is a sickness cured by time/Bruises all end up benign,” sings a blustery narrator projecting stability on “Only the Strong,” and I see myself now still nursing wounds from three years ago while I pass under a tree strung with soft white lights. “If you were mine/I’d let you live your life,” promises a deterred lover on “The End of the Affair,” and I curl up inside the smallness of the sentiment, thinking of seven or eight people at once.
“I know your mama’s kind of sad/And your papa’s kind of mean/I can take it all away/You can stop playing that shit out on me,” Marling sang three years ago on “Wild Fire,” and during one of those sleepless nights in London, I sent the song to my stateside boyfriend, not even pretending to soften the message. Near the end, we saw Marling at a venue across the street from his apartment. I’ve had a few experiences I’ll never forget, and this is one of them — a pair of cold hands around my waist, Marling throwing her tiny shoulders forward to punctuate the hymn: “The only thing I learned in a year/Where I didn’t smile once, not really/Is nothing matters more than love/No, nothing/No, not nothing/No, not nearly.”
It was a rare moment of total clarity, dropped in the middle of murky fights and negotiations and reconciliations. Everything coalesced and told me what to do, so I did it, and gave myself wounds I’m still writing through three years later.
Now the world is worse off and I’m probably better off and Laura Marling has dropped another puzzle at my feet. Here’s hoping I figure out what she’s telling me this time.