First, a confession: despite her glowing reputation as the pre-eminent singer-songwriter on the British folk scene, the musical allure of Laura Marling had somehow escaped me. This makes your correspondent a Very Bad Person, but the door to salvation opens for the willing soul and redemption is just a pressed button away. And so it was last month that in late-night despair at a post-truth world, lamenting the state of the nation, I was healed by a song reflecting the state of a heart.
The revelation came during a BBC broadcast of the headline act at the 2017 Celtic Connections in Glasgow. I had approached the performance in curiosity more than expectation, for reading a four-star endorsement beforehand was not dissimilar to perusing an ecstatic film review and thinking: ‘Well, we’ll see.’ What followed, though, made a lingering impression and called yet another disciple to the church of Laura Marling.
Graeme Virtue, in The Guardian, described the set as ‘poised, reflective and hauntingly hushed’, highlighting a ‘knack for creating startling moments of intimacy’. It was a stunning performance, capped by one extraordinary song in particular.
Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) was released on December 11 2009 as the lead single from Marling’s second album I Speak Because I Can. It was intended as a winter ode – which is a fairer portrayal than ‘Christmas single’, a phrase so often wielded in the pejorative sense. There are no jingle bells here, for the listener is soon shaken from any yuletide bonhomie by a bittersweet song of cold comfort, of early love and frozen earth.
You were so smart then, in your jacket and coat.
My softest red scarf was warming your throat.
Winter was on us, at the end of my nose,
But I never love England more than when covered in snow.
The song meanders and occasionally tumbles through the hopes and fears of the roiling twenties, when love goes wrong and nothing seems to go right, when the only course of action is ‘clearing all the stuff out of my room, trying desperately to figure out what it is that makes me blue’, and running running running, while family and friends wait to catch the faltering soul.
In a 2011 interview Marling told Laura Barton: ‘I think the song that’s most me, and most how I speak, is Goodbye England. Because it’s so sort of soppy. And the line “We will keep you little one” is so my family, because in my family I’m Little One, even though I’m about twice the size of them all. There’s some lines like that in my songs that I think only people who know me would know where that sits with me. That’s one of them.’
Listen to her sing Goodbye England accompanied only by the guitar she strums and it is clear that we are in the presence of greatness, a clear-eyed poet destined to become the finest lyricist of her generation, part of a golden lineage tracing back through Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and through the decades of modern popular song to Cole Porter: a master of her craft.
Winter will leave us,
Left the end of my nose,
So goodbye old England till next year’s snow.
This is a beautiful song of life and love and family and home, and hearing it revives me as middle age riddles my senses. It is a strange journey, this brief life, this long search for an answer, wondering what on earth it’s all about. One by one the lessons write the story. I want to tell you it will be all right; I want to hear it, too. At least we can count on the seasons.