Laura Marling’s 2007 debut Alas, I Cannot Swim was a masterpiece of such world-weariness and maturity that it was hard to believe it was released just after the singer-songwriter’s 17th birthday. Yet Swim captured the live-wire emotional intensity of adolescence even as its songcraft and literate lyrics betrayed the precociousness of a singer much wiser than her years. On her follow-up, I Speak Because I Can, Marling alternates between hushed, whispered intensity and pummeling intensity, sometimes over the course of a single song, like “Hope In The Air,” which segues from spare minimalism to angrily strummed guitar, rage, and poisonous sarcasm. Marling’s character studies and portraits of troubled relationships are painted with infinite shades of black and grey, but she leavens the sometimes punishing intimacy with great dollops of black humor, like when she admonishes, “Why fear death? / Be afraid of living” on “Hope in The Air.”
“Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)” is blessed with a music-box delicacy, while “What He Wrote” finds the trembling tragedy in the correspondence of a star-crossed couple during wartime. “I believe you are meant to be seen but not to be understood,” Marling sings with scary conviction on “Alpha Shallows,” and fittingly, I Can maintains its mystery and poetic obfuscation upon repeat listens. I Can would make for sublime coffee-shop fodder, except that Marling’s music and especially her exquisitely wrought words reward, deserve, and ultimately demand close concentration.