Laura Marling New Album, Final Night Of Tour Reviewed: Boys Will Be Archetypes and Muses
We take art too seriously, we miss the obvious: art is our deepest feelings come out to play with us. Because we don’t get the playfulness of going deep into our subconscious for complex games we won’t give into the secret life. The artist is the Holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation of our mind: it makes real what is lurking and it allows to manipulate our feelings. Do it well enough and you could be very rich.
Take Taylor Swift -who plays the trick with her biggest fear: boys who will, indeed, be boyfriends. Similar to Elvis Costello, Taylor’s muse isn’t a person, it is a sex. Laura melts both the unique man and the archetype male together and writes songs in which she transmogrifies her feelings through a spectrum of man as myth. “You weren’t my curse,” Laura sings at the conclusion of her latest album When I Was An Eagle, “thank you naivete for failing me again. He was my next verse.” Laura hides inside the depths of emotional shallowness.
At Roulette in Brooklyn Tuesday night, the English rose transplanted to Los Angeles sang songs of men and tackled them the way a lapsed Catholic might tackle God: she parsed her feelings to a fine point, equal parts contemplate and complaint. On a barren stage, Marling was flanked by nothing at all except for two guitars which she tuned six different ways and disrupted the flow of her set with an “I decided not to bring a guitar technician. It doesn’t bother me but then I didn’t pay for a ticket”. Laura played eight songs off the new album, seven off two previous albums. When she was talking, Laura seemed calm and smart, younger than her 23 years but mostly because she wasn’t revealing anything. When she sang, she soared. The songs added to a view of love as lapsed Gods and paths not taken. The songs were tinged with disaster and even late arrival “Love Be Brave” the rarest of her songs, one of hope, pushed back with a finale which reminded us she hasn’t arrived yet. Or that love is so transient it, much like life, has built in obsolecence.
I have been comparing When I Was An Eagle to Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Not least now I realize that, similar to Joni in Blue, Laura was planning leaving old Europe for young Los Angeles when she wrote it. But I got it wrong, despite the acoustic guitar and strings of the songs, it is a modern (Elvis Costello) Imperial Bedroom -his divorce album. Both albums are mental changes going inward which revolve on a spot of love. Bedroom has the better words, Eagle the better songs. The four song suite that open the album, segueing into each other, Laura opened her every night of the six date tour with the same four songs, detail the dissolution of a relationship: they could be one song, it is like a gradual dissolve. Think Cat Stevens “Foreigner”. The feelings surround her and she keeps climbing on top of them and then they change her and then she resolves not to let them change.
When Laura performs on stage, she plays with us in a different way, she remains hidden. She doesn’t discuss anything much more personal than that she played out “Goodbye To England (Covered In Snow)” in real life by moving to Silver Lake, California. In an astoundingly unrevealing interview last April in the Guardian, Laura offered this: “You meet the right person at the right time and they fulfil a certain something in your life. You fulfill something in theirs. But there’s a time limit to that. Unless you choose to be bloody good company for the rest of your life, do you know what I mean?” So I guess what we are doing here is watching not one romance but all.
Which leads us back to When I Was An Eagle. The only recent album to dig as deep into love, to look so closely at the inner workings of the heart, is Red. The similarities between the two women are surprising. Both broke through as teens, both are on their fourth album, both are all about the songs. I prefer Taylor as a pop star, Laura as a pop musician.
What makes Laura capable of going on stage with just a couple of guitars is the enormous strength of her songs. Eagle has at least nine great songs, and those that aren’t great are awful close to it. Laura is such a great songwriter that “Where Can I Go?”, a song so wonderful in its sad sorrowful traveling, it was perhaps my fave of the year until the album was released, isn’t even performed live. It is a deep album track. If you can get past the four song suite which as stand alones go are perfection, so much is left waiting for you. And by the time you have traveled to “Love Be Brave” every single thing is right, “How can I sleep at night with you not by side?” she asks a lover. “Hold me down, make no sound”. The song is a beautiful acoustic normal which builds towards hope, a hope pretty much destroyed soon after but that is, of course, what is going on here. It is so lovely you find yourself holding your breath. As Alyson Camus wrote in her live review: “Her set was so intense it turned the large crowd totally quiet right away. I even think I was one of the rare persons taking pictures – an extremely odd thing in this iPhone age – seriously, everyone’s attention was completely absorbed, in awe of this young woman with her guitar.” It was like a commune undercut by comedy. At Roulette, we were a little less respectful but still, it was an intense audience.
I happened to be nearby when Laura came into the club, almost literally bumped into her, and even very very close, she didn’t look like an everygirl. Nor like the blondness of a Canal West Coast-she isn’t brash or physically aggressive. Maybe five foot tall, Laura is petite but not defensive. Her posture comes at you and on stage she is friendly and neutral, speaks just enough to make it unique. “I like to talk about my day while I’m tuning my guitar. But nothing happened today”. It undercuts the enormous tension in her songs, a breather since none of the songs actually give you one.
Yet Laura looks the way you expect her to, she looks the way she sounds. A poison rose, a prickly thing: she looks like a character out of a John Fowles novel, she is a Jenny McNeil. who is never what she appears to be precisely, stronger than she seems at first. On stage she looks like she might need protecting but she really doesn’t at all and the set is so finely modulated you forget what you are missing. On the records, violins take you from the end of the four song medley to “Master Hunter” –it is not a segue but a full stop. It pulls you out one realm of love and straight into the other. But at Roulette there are no strings and when “Master Hunter” begins there are no drums to thump you. I didn’t notice any of that at the time. but my point is the album is better and also my point is a suspended feeling of disbelief and the deep urge to quit my day job and follow her around selling tie dyed tee shirts.
AND: I was scared the set was gonna end. The only time I can remember the sense of dread at the impending conclusion of a concert was February 1st, 1981, the Costello-Squeeze tour. I got front row seats with my sister Marie, Marie was obsessed with Squeeze and I was a huge fan as well as being completely insane over Costello. They were both terrific, and as the time passed I started to panic, I didn’t want it to end. I wasn’t quite certain how long Marling’s set would last but time was moving so quickly and I could feel it threatening, as threatening dust. The longest I’ve ever noted a Laura set was the 21 songs she performed last year at the Royal Albert Hall, and when I saw her in 2011 she performed 8 songs in half an hour. We got 65 minutes, 15 songs, concluding with two of her best, the oldie “The Rambling Man” and the conclusion of the album “Saved These Words”.
On the album, “Saved These Words” concludes a cycle of naiveté and let down in love began with “Take the Night Off” –the songs ebb and flow from faith in love to disbelief and back: it is like Socrates proof of the opposites come to life: the more love the less let down, the more let down the less love and they move to and fro in an eternal dance of romantic desire.
I’ve mentioned Taylor Swift and this is what I feel is happening with both songwriters but I wanna deal with Laura. In the Guardian interview she claimed: “That’s my trick. Weaving emotion around personification of beasts, of the wild.” That’s what she says but what she means is that she’s a Jungian, she uses archetypes: “ancient or archaic images that derive from the collective unconscious.” And her real trick is to make men the ultimate archetype. Laura moves close and then away from love as the image of man (not a man) threatens to overwhelm her. Taylor Swift suffers from a similar problem. Laura turns away from the myth of man because she doesn’t want to be subsumed by it and Taylor turns away because she does want to subsumed by it but can’t be. Both are less interested in “a man” than in “men”.
That’s not why Once I Was An Eagle is a masterpiece and it is not why Laura’s performance at Roulette (or McKittrick Hotel for that matter) was a great concert. Allowing your feelings to be played with, manipulated may be art but writing perfect songs is high art, it is timeless. So many of these songs are great it is an astounding achievement. And the proof is that while Laura appears tangled in the subjective nature of romantic dissonance, these songs demand to be covered. Not only should Joan Baez cover “The Rambling Man” but Judy Collins should cover “Love be Brave”. This isn’t Fairport Convention, it has shed its Englishness for a Western world music universal. The songs are not simple but they are played simply and the overall effect is of a returning over and over like waves on the shore that crest and subside, to the deepest sense of humanity.
Once I Was An Eagle – A+
Live At Roulette, Brooklyn NY, Tuesday, May 28th 2013 – A