Never one to do things the easy way, Laura Marling is on a tour of England’s cathedrals. “Last night” (at the opening night of the tour in Exeter), she announced, “we found it surprisingly intimidating for us up here. And for you. Which was sort of the idea.”
In support were The Leisure Society, songwriters’ songwriters, with sweetly yearning melodies and a flautist and violinist (shared with Marling) adding a pastoral sparkle to essentially autumnal songs. A cover of “A Little Respect” recast Erasure as the Everly Brothers, flute arpeggios doing the work of Vince Clarke’s keyboards. Their final song, “Save It For Someone Who Cares”, suitably enough, pictured an “audience in a house of God”; its syncopated piano and drum machine, with violin pizzicato through the middle eight, ended in galloping clapping from the audience, reverberating as only gothic stonework can.
Marling herself began with the space-age croon of “I Was Just A Card”, her eyes fixed on the roof bosses as she sang “I could have sworn I had that man . . .” “The Muse” had banjo and honky-tonk piano, but the quiet passages were soft as prayer. Only 21, Marling is on her third album, moving steadily away from pure folk towards something that stubbornly resists the confessional.
The centrepiece of her new album, A Creature I Don’t Know, is “The Beast”. She began it so softly as to be barely audible from the fifth pew, the slightest atmospherics colouring the words as she sang “tonight he lies with me, tonight he lies with me” – and then, with a tattoo of drums, five guitars were growling like a company of wolves, and the song became a Dies Irae, Marling gurgling the last couplet in the voice of the possessed. As the song slammed shut, the last chord echoed up the nave and bounced off the west door.
After that, she took an extended interlude unaccompanied but for her own acoustic guitar, running through a series of moods. There was the deceptive nursery sing-song of “Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)”; the meanness of “Failure” redeemed by its second verse; a new song (too new to have featured on an album barely a month old) with a dialogue between two lovers dreaming of a door and “what lies behind”, the “lies” fractured into a string of microtones; the aching chorus of “Night After Night” stark as the cathedral itself.
The band returned for a jolting hoedown on “My Dear Friends”. But on “Rest In The Bed” they were imperceptible, until a faint breaking dawn of harmonium and bowed double bass swelled under the ending “as long as we both shall live”, as chilly as a life sentence, cueing the dramatic avalanche of “My Manic And I”.
Marling makes a fetish of not playing encores, even for her own diocese (she is a Hampshire native), so “if you wanted an encore this is the last song, and if you didn’t, this is the second-last.” Nonetheless, her quietly loyal congregation applauded in vain hope.