Review: Laura Marling's 'Song for Our Daughter' boasts compelling storytelling, dynamic instrumentation

by Jack Hargrove | 5/14/20 2:10am

In a genre as old as folk, it can be hard for anything to stand out against the large body of work comprising the genre’s canon. Artists like Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon cultivated the sound that became associated with folk singer-songwriters in the middle of the 20th century. While the sounds they played were by definition based on earlier American musical styles, these artists sounded novel and each presented a unique brand of folk. In recent years, however, artists like Ed Sheeran have figured out how to soullessly manufacture the singer-songwriter formula by repeating the same tired sound again and again. Faced with a barrage of mediocre music, modern folk singer-songwriters have been forced to innovate in an attempt to stand out.

British musician Laura Marling is one of the more exciting folk artists of the last decade. On her most recent album, “Song for Our Daughter,” she tends toward the style of folk musicians that came before her, particularly that of Joni Mitchell. While none of the sounds on the album are particularly experimental, Marling has perfected her own style of folk music — a collection of compelling stories sung over haunting melodies. In that sense she resembles Bill Callahan, a fellow folk artist who sounds as fresh and creative as the giants of the genre. However, Marling brings an interesting perspective as a woman in a genre historically dominated by men. In “Song for Our Daughter,” Marling reflects on her younger days as a woman and frames these stories as cautionary tales told to an imagined daughter. With this album, Marling uses her stellar songwriting to create a captivating set of stories sung over full-bodied instrumentation and elegant harmonies.

Marling’s primary lyrical strength on “Songs for Our Daughter” is her ability to weave complex stories into three-minute songs. One of the best examples of this is the second track, “Held Down.” In just a few minutes, Marling conveys the tangled emotions she feels after a romantic partner suddenly leaves. In the second verse, she sings, “And I just want to tell you that I don’t want to let you down,” showcasing the blame she initially puts on herself. In the next verse, she gets angry, singing, “It’s a cruel kinda twist that you’d leave like this/Just drop my wrist and say, ‘Well that’s us done.’” Finally, in the fourth verse, Marling reaches a point of acceptance, singing, “But you’re writing again, and I’m glad old friend/I’ll make sure you write me out of where you get to.” These lyrics come across as deeply personal, allowing the listener to enter Marling’s mindset. While it may not sound like much, it takes a great amount of skill to effectively relate such a wide range of emotions in such a compact format.

The next song, “Strange Girl,” is the first to directly follow the album's loose concept, as the refrain of, “I love you, my strange girl/My lonely girl/My angry girl/My brave,” sounds like a love song to a daughter. A closer listen, however, reveals that Marling is singing about her former self. Lines like, “Announced yourself a socialist to have something to defend,” are fond reflections on the idealism of youth; it appears that Marling, like many people, has lost the passion she once had in her adolescence. On the other hand, lines like, “Woke up in a country who refused to hold your hand/Kept falling for narcissists who insist you call them ‘man,’” sound more like advice to her former self and, by extension, all young women. These lyrics clearly come from self-experience, making the message all the more meaningful.

This theme continues on the title track of the album, one of only two songs that explicitly refer to Marling’s imaginary daughter. In the second verse, Marling sings, “Lately I’ve been thinking about our daughter growing old/All of the bullshit that she might be told/There’s blood on the floor/Maybe now you’ll believe her for sure.” This line is an allusion to the Roman story of Lucretia, who killed herself after being raped. Marling worries that her daughter may be sexually assaulted at some point and have to put up with not being believed. Again, this worry extends to all women, with her daughter serving as a stand-in.

Among the many well-told stories, there are also fantastically well-written solitary lines on each song. In “Only the Strong,” Marling sings, “Only the strong survive/Only the strong survive/Only the wrong relive their lives/We’ve been here a thousand times,” cleverly calling herself wrong for attempting a relationship so many times. She also references Buddhism in this line, specifically the idea that reincarnation is the fate of those who have not reached enlightenment. In “Blow by Blow,” Marling sings that “Knowing thunder gives away what lightning has to hide,” a well-crafted metaphor and turn of phrase. Marling’s wit is present again in “Fortune,” where she sings, “I think of it fondly now the truth can be told/Some love is ancient and it lives on in your soul/A fortune that never grows old.” This line fits very well into the context of the song; the lyrics are cryptic, but they emerge when the song’s narrator decides to own up to her mistakes rather than keep hiding. Across the album, Marling’s way with words makes listening closely a delight.

While good lyrics are important to the success of “Song for Our Daughter,” the instrumentation is just as critical. Many singer-songwriter albums fall flat in this department, with every song backed up by similar guitar lines that sound empty. On this album, every song is brimming with full-bodied instrumentation and elegant harmonies, even the quiet, guitar-focused ones. The first track “Alexandra” is one such guitar-based track, but the subtle inclusion of a soft bassline complements the guitar well. In addition, the layered vocal harmonies work perfectly, elevating an otherwise quiet song to a much grander status. “Alexandra” owes a great debt to many folk songs that came before, but Marling’s personality and voice clearly distinguish the song as her own.

“Strange Girl” has the most dynamic instrumentation on the album, resulting in a surprising danceability. A loud, rhythmic drum set provides the backbone of the song, but the loose guitar work is ultimately what makes the track so energetic. It easily features the most instrumentation of any song on the album, with guitar, drums, bass and layered vocals. Overall, the greatest strength of “Strange Girl” is how upbeat it is, complementing the nostalgic lyrics.

Many songs on the album start with sparse instrumentation and slowly pick up momentum by the time they end, particularly “Song for Our Daughter.” The way in which this song and others swell with sound makes them exciting to listen to and prevents them from becoming a drag. This song, as well as “Blow by Blow” and some others, also contains periodic orchestral flourishes, akin to the work of legendary producer Van Dyke Parks. These crescendoes prevent the guitar from becoming tedious and also provide a fantastic energy.

While most songs on the album build through gradually layered instrumentation, the eighth track “The End of the Affair” achieves the same effect with just Marling’s voice. Despite the gentle guitar work remaining largely the same throughout the track, the energy grows from beginning to end solely through vocal work. The layered harmonies in the song help to provide this effect, acting very much like an instrument in their own right. These harmonies are a major strength throughout the entirety of the album.

The penultimate track “Hope We Meet Again” is perhaps the best on the album, showcasing everything that makes this LP so great. The lyrics tell a devastating tale about the end of a relationship. Lines like, “I tried to give you love and truth/But you’re acid-tongued, serpent-toothed” provide more of Marling’s well-crafted imagery and metaphors. The lyrics are sung so softly that some are almost whispered. But the true strength of this track is in its haunting guitar work, covering the entire song with a sense of melancholy. By the end of the song, the instrumentation has expanded significantly, including a guitar with the signature Nashville twang. 

The album closes with “For You,” providing closure to the imaginary daughter concept of the album. Here, Marling sings to this daughter, “I thank a God I’ve never met/Never loved, never wanted (For you).” The song is dominated by humming, creating pleasing harmonies to close out the album.

Ultimately, “Song for Our Daughter” is Laura Marling’s best album yet. It may not break any boundaries or cross into any new territory, but its lyrics are so charming and its harmonies so gorgeous that it does not need to be innovative; it is irresistible anyway.