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British arguments about dwindling social mobility have spilled into the arts. Are there too many posh actors? Where have all the working-class bands gone? Is Glastonbury morphing into a gigantic Oxbridge ball?
Through it all sails Laura Marling, as serene as a swan on the river flowing through the Hampshire village where she was brought up, in a farm bordered by a sign reading “Welcome to Jane Austen country”. The daughter of the 5th Baronet Marling escapes censure for her privileged background in a way that James Blunt, say, does not. She is above the fray.
At the Queen Elizabeth Hall the singer-songwriter radiated self-possession. She stood perfectly still at the microphone stand, guitar in hand, legs crossed as though ready to proffer a chilly curtsy to any members of royalty present, her gaze fixed on a point just above the top row of the audience. Yet for all the aristocratic composure of her appearance, her songs told a different story — one of longing and doubts and ambivalence.
The tone was set by the opener “Howl”, from her new album Short Movie. A psychedelic haze of electrified acoustic guitar swirled around the singer as she addressed an elusive object of desire (“I’ll come get you, hope that you haven’t changed your mind”). Roles were reversed in the next song, “Take the Night Off”. “I don’t want you to want me,” Marling sighed, withdrawing into mysteriously meandering folk-rock, its subtle textures laid down by a backing trio of double bass, guitar and drums.
Themes of wanting and not wanting recurred. “I Feel Your Love” was a love song ending with the line “Please let me go”. “Rambling Man” evoked a strangely self-divided state of mind, Marling singing: “It’s hard to accept yourself as someone you don’t desire, as someone you don’t want to be.”
A panorama of a Californian desert was projected behind her. She recently returned from a stint living in the US, its legacy evident in her mid-Atlantic-accented vocals. Other UK acts have been mocked for such adoptions, but in Marling it came across naturally, a sign of not really belonging anywhere. The music shared this rootless quality, ranging from distorted alt-rock to old-fashioned country-blues and English folk, all brought to life with the same single-minded intensity. It’s not just privilege that puts Marling in a class above the rest.