Laura Marling's Epic Lyricism
As critics have noted, English folk songstress Laura Marling’s critically acclaimed I Speak Because I Can (2010) is mostly sung in first person, but is seldom autobiographical. Instead of directly articulating her own emotions and experiences, Laura often channels the personas and positions of other people to examine the roles of men and women in society from a chiselled (but not unaffecting) distance.
My favourite Marling track so far is ‘What He Wrote’, which was inspired by one side of a World War II correspondence:
"I read some letters published in a newspaper, wartime letters, from World War II. It was between a man and a woman, a man who had gone away to fight, and it only had the woman's letters. They never found the man's letters, and it was all about how the last time that they had seen each other, she had been so upset that she was, like, rigid with anger, and I started to think about his letters."
Sung from the perspective of a woman separated from her lover by war (and who has since married someone else), Marling draws from Greek myth (Hera, supreme goddess of fertility and childbirth, is mentioned twice) and biblical references to create a standout track that is both hauntingly intimate and sweepingly epic.
Marling excavates the anguish and trauma of forced separation with lyrical precision, singing ‘Left me alone when I needed the light/ fell to my knees and I wept for my life’. The speaker’s desperation is rendered in beautiful lyrics that echo the universal tragedies of wartime, whether during World War II or in the annals of ancient history:
‘He had to leave though I begged him to stay.
Begged him to stay in my cold wooden grip,
begged him to stay by the light of this ship.
Me fighting him, fighting life fighting dawn,
and the waves came and stole him and took him to war.’
The soldier’s memory lingers from across the abyss, the doomed relationship kept on life support by their correspondence:
please send for me
but I'm broken too
and spoken for
do not tempt me.”
As the opening lyrics establish, there is no hope here, only meagre attempts to atone for what might have been. The song’s final verse creates a haunting juxtaposition of the lovers’ estrangement (which can only be ameliorated by passionate letter writing), and the memory of the close intimacy they once shared:
I miss his smell.
We speak when spoken to,
and that suits us well
That suits us well.
That suits me well.’
Laura Snapes of NME notes that “The whole song, just vocals and guitar, trembles in its waltz rhythm, but the most effecting line has to be the unqualified frankness of, ‘I miss his smell’.” I was more affected by Marling's effective use of internal rhyming and the ambivalence of the closing lines – ‘We speak when spoken to …That suits me well’ – there seems to be a passive acceptance of one’s inability to change one’s fate here, an ingrained sense of futility that contrasts against the ‘active rage’ expressed in the past, rage that can be channelled to shape and alter one’s life circumstances. But life defeats even the best of us, and then one is left with the arduous task of burying the hatchet with what might have been.
There isn't an official music video to accompany the track, but there is a very apt fan-made video that makes great use of scenes from A Very Long Engagement (2004).