“If you haven’t seen one of my shows before, it’s 25 percent tuning” Laura Marling tells a crowd, prompting titters from an otherwise reverent, almost motionless audience. That’s about as animated as she gets between songs, with most banter consisting of non-sequiturs, stock-standard “It’s good to be here in Sydney” style filler and confessions about her jetlag and lack of preparation, usually followed by apologies that she isn’t better at chitchat.
Her apparent discomfort in front of an audience is all the more surprising given the assured excellence of this set, which begins with the four tracks which form the unbroken song cycle that begins her most recent (and strongest) record, Once I Was an Eagle. Not only does running these songs into one another allow her to avoid more awkward banter, it suits the cohesiveness of tone established from the gentle strumming at the start of ‘Take The Night Off’ to the mellow fade of ‘Breathe’.
Rich in imagery and precise finger-picking guitar, these are songs which alternate between emotional brittleness and the kind of quiet forcefulness seen in the refrain of ‘I Was an Eagle’: “I will not be a victim of romance / I will not be a victim of circumstance”. Determined as she seems to talk her prodigious talents down, it’s hard not to be gripped by the emotional nakedness on display in these songs, which run the gamut from to lust to regret and a clear-eyed assessment of loves lost. With just Marling and cellist Ruth de Tuberville on some songs, there’s plenty of space around her lived-in, nicotine-stained voice.
There is often a stillness to Marling’s work which suits such an austere venue, but increasingly her songs include also moments of venom and a newfound knack for the killer kiss-off, like in ‘Master Hunter’ where she trades her usual stately delivery for a more urgent and dense style, flipping a Bob Dylan lyric on its head “If you want a woman who can call your name / It ain’t me babe”.
She can still do fragile prettiness better than almost anyone though and ‘Little Love Caster’ is a master class in spareness, little more than some flourishes of Spanish guitar and vocals which bring to mind the frail, almost whispered intensity of Nick Drake.
The set winds down with ‘I Speak Because I Can’ with its arresting opening line and swooping melody suggesting that while her latest record may be her strongest collection, the older favourites are still capable of landing emotional blows. After explaining that she doesn’t do encores “If it helps, think of that as the last song and this next one as the encore”, she concludes with the heartbreaking, almost hymnal ‘Saved These Words’, which includes one of her most preternaturally wise couplets: “Love’s not easy, not always fun / And words are sleazy, my love is better dumb”. A quarter of a Laura Marling show may be self-consciousness, stalling and guitar tuning, but thankfully the rest of it is completely and utterly disarming.