Friday, August 19th, 2011

Laura Marling – Sophia

English folkie wonders, ponders…


Michaela Drapes: It’s rare that music makes me wish I was young again. Not out of any misguided nostalgia, mind you — but in that way that makes me wish I could seal up a song or an album that I’m hearing now and send it back in time to myself, because I know I would have needed or appreciated or just adored it at another particular moment in time a little more than I do now. I’d avoided Laura Marling from the beginning, thanks to her association with the utterly repugnant Noah and the Whale; that was my mistake, which has now, thankfully, been rectified. Now if only I could send her albums back to my teenage self, as a bolster and a life buoy and a message from the me of now… 

Edward Okulicz: Her powerful songwriting and beautiful voice remain undimmed, but she’s still finding new ways to present her gifts with her arrangements. While the song isn’t too dissimilar to “Rambling Man,” the vocal harmonies laid over the second half of “Sophia” are both divine and a new addition to her already rich palette. The pastoral folk opening gives way to a bit that makes me think of what a female Ryan Adams might sound like, but for the most part Marling defies easily compartmentalisation. Parts of “Sophia” lack a bit of the lyrical/narrative sharpness of some of her very best songs — the prominent use of the “wondering/pondering” pair is weak for instance — but in all other aspects, Marling is compelling and evocative, once again at the top of her game.

Zach Lyon: Loses so many points for that “wondering”/”pondering” line; gains quite a few back for transmogrifying into a Pretenders/Joanna Newsom collaboration against every sensible expectation.

Brad Shoup: I’m still so relieved this didn’t end up a twee folk revival rip that I’m not willing to penalize for the violation of a cardinal writing rule: no form of “pondering” ever works in song. The track keeps adding momentum, ending up pitched between a rueful hoedown and “Sufficiently Breathless.” Have to assume that’s her on those stunning close harmonies, as well. Surely a barnburner live.

Jer Fairall: Laura Marling may very well be my favourite new British artist in a decade, and “Sophia” is full of reasons why: her painterly way of sketching personal lyrical details on broad canvases, here rendering (what I take to be) a scorned-woman break-up song in images of Judgement Days and tolling bells; the sheer dynamic range of her songwriting, shifting as it does here from placid folk to confessional intensity to a classic rock strut with remarkable ease; that sternly authoritative yet blanket-warm voice, so ridiculously wise beyond her years. But her best trick here comes only two lines in, following up the conventional, almost hoary, “Oh, I have been wondering, where I have been pondering” with “Where I’ve been lately is no concern of yours” — a spit in the face of her ex-lover, undoubtedly, yet still a lyric that has the startling effect of severing the implicit relationship between the polite, heart-on-sleeve folkie and the listener by denying us a crucial part of the narrative. Recognizing that some parts of the story may just be too private only lends greater power to the words that she does allow us.  

Katherine St Asaph: A few days ago, after reading another Songs I Love sausage string, I suggested maybe the problem is people are more receptive to seeing female artists as skilled than to truly connecting with their work. I didn’t mention Laura Marling, but I could have. Particularly on I Speak Because I Can, everyone dumped Dylan gravitas upon her like cement, making the album impenetrably weighty enough to land around #20 on people’s year-end lists, then sink out of memory. “Sophia” should be a corrective. Skeptics’ll have to get past the ponderous “pondering” and crank up the volume and their attention level, but there’s a story afterward, wrenching because Laura’s straining not to tell it. “I’m a good woman, and I never did say whatever it was you did that day,” she says, half-smug and half-resigned; earlier, there’s “Who’s been touching my skin?/Who have I been letting?” which she calls none of his business but which she’s mentioning anyway. If breakups and clipped rebounds aren’t enough, perhaps a nice “you’re going to hell” over a revival stomp will do it? Or something airier: seraphic harmonies? A few lines of near-classical singing? Remember, Laura Marling broke not because she was teenaged and talented but because she wrote stark lyrics like “My Manic And I” and “Night Terror.” I hear myself in roughly three tracks an album. What’s stopping you?

Ian Mathers: Is she slowly turning into Joni Mitchell in the middle of this song? Not complaining, really. Her voice (literal and figurative) continues to get more interesting. “Sophia” feels kind of like it’s from the ’70s, kind of like it’s from some impossible medieval time, and kind of like it’s from next year.

Jonathan Bradley: When responding to Laura Marling, I usually find myself reaching not to musical references, but to 19th Century literature. Her first two albums had the deathly beauty of a Victorian-era Gothic heroine; she sounded like a waif perennially on the brink of dying of consumption. “Sophia” is brighter and brisker than that dour stuff though, and has the same pastoral quality of some of William Wordsworth’s romantic rambles. (Though, fortunately, not his predilection for pat rhymes and linguistic cliché.) After some prefatory acoustic guitar plucking that comes across as tentative yet sunny, Marling breaks out into robust folk-rock that is the most like Mumford and Sons she has ever been, but with the presence and surety of Ryan Adams at his best. I miss her lost out on wild and windy moors, but she has here proven herself just as suited to a summery country walk.

Alfred Soto: To project yearning, her voice affects an Emmylou Harris trill, which has never been one of my favorite sounds on earth. The rest of the time she’s closer to Linda Thompson in search of a context, although the multitracked semi-hysteria of the last minute, complete with cello, comes close. 

Anthony Easton: Simon Reynolds’ Retromania mentions — or hints at — a serious discussion of Fairport Convention, and their pick up by neo-hippies in the 80s and 90s, but doesn’t quite form an opinion. It’s okay; he forms an opinion about dozens of other things, but I keep wondering if there is a revival of a revival of a revival in the popularity of Marling and co. This is especially true in how American the religiosity of this is, and how much English work went off with the fairies and avoided the Lord. It’s also a little more wild, and a little more far ranging, though not by much.

Jonathan Bogart: I was with it until it went into the Fairport Convention rave-up. She’s got a nice voice, but she’s no Sandy Denny.

5 Responses to “Laura Marling – Sophia”

  1. Wow, I did not think I was going to be one of the lower scores here.

  2. I realize I didn’t say much about this song, actually — I’m glad various others mentioned Joni Mitchell (it’s true there’s a lof of that mid-song) and Fairport Convention. The guitar in the intro is very Joan Baez-ish, really; and she’s less indebted to Sandy Denny and more Judee Sill, I think.

    And, I’m assuming the “Cotton Eyed Joe” melody quotation is intentional, but I could be wrong?

  3. Breezy and I both pick up a Ryan Adams thing; he’s more of a fan than I am (I’m not), maybe part of reminds me of the second half of the second verse of “New York New York” a bit?

  4. “New York New York” is precisely what I was thinking of, though I might also be picking up some vague hints of “English Girls Approximately.” And the arrangement of the latter half — what Jer calls a “classic rock strut” — reminds me generally of the upbeat parts of Heartbreaker.

  5. I was actually kind of puzzled by the fact that you both mentioned him — I wasn’t hearing it, but now that you mention “New York New York” … of course!