I Speak Because I Can isn't exactly a growing pain and doesn't find itself in a sophomore rut, but it does feel very much like a stepping stone.
Laura Marling is probably a lovely young lady, but fizzing with resentment over the sight of her name is a justifiable action. When Marling was all of 17, she released Alas, I Cannot Swim, an excellent album that became extraordinary when her age was taken into account. Lucky listeners of the album were gifted with a strong singing and writing voice, one that came to us with understated stories of unstable love and religious renouncement. This pairing of talent with stunning sensibility would be enough to make most teenage prodigies feel as though they were unproductive boors.
Yet, in the same way that it is sometimes nice to get hit with a feather, it is nice to see a quiet girl prevail. The Florences and Little Boots and La Rouxs -- and even the Kate Nashs -- have their attributes and are clearly talented, but Marling can probably wither them all with one undressed ballad. Years from now, Marling will be the artist still making memorable records. There has always been something more honest and enduring about her songs; by stripping them bare, the heart becomes more visible. However, all this can fail to deliver even the most switched on talent from growing pains and sophomore ruts. I Speak Because I Can isn't exactly either of these things, but it does feel very much like a stepping stone.
Equal parts boon and bane on I Speak Because I Can is Marling's singing voice. In the time that has passed between Alas, I Cannot Swim and the present, it has taken on a few dressy affectations. Marling (understandably) seems to be searching for a unique voice, and sometimes her added affectations work to enhance an already dramatic song, as showcased in the "I find this most distasteful and will not stand for it" way she sings the chorus of "Hope in the Air". On opener "Devil's Spoke", however, it proves a bit of an adjustment for the listener accustomed to the fuss-free vocal leanings of Alas, I Cannot Swim. When, as on "Devil's Spoke", Marling sings a provocative line like "Ripping off each other's clothes in a most peculiar way", the proceedings feel somewhat forced.
These vocal experimentations can be easily overlooked when I Speak Because I Can reaches its middle section, which holds claim to some of the more beautiful passages of music to come out this year. The profound string outro to "Blackberry Stone", the last swooning minute of "Alpha Shallows", and the glorious moment in "Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)" when backing band and vocalists Mumford and Sons lift Marling's voice far above England's soot all succeed in inducing chills. Each swell of beauty on the record introduces itself politely, and then retires in the same manner. Nothing overstays its welcome, and in these instances I Speak Because I Can earns a repeat listening ticket straight into the fall and perhaps winter.
I Speak Because I Can feels more professional than its predecessor, yet the album as a whole fails to capture the emotional power of Alas, I Cannot Swim. Content wise, the albums are very similar -- more trouble and romance -- but with the increased production and vocal richness, a bit of honesty seems to have been misplaced. When Marling tempers her mannerisms and finds the right balance between mature production and folky sparseness, all the mandolins and dulcimers in the folk canon will be hers. She doesn't even have to shout to get them.