16. Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) – Laura Marling 2010/11
Since my daughter was born, just over six years ago, there’s pretty consistently been snow each winter in England. Growing up I remember snow as a rare event – I don’t know factually whether it was, it may just be the vagaries of memory – whereas now it seems to arrive every year.
It’s divisive, snow. With adult eyes I view it as a wearying inconvenience: scraping the car, clearing the drive, being cold and wet, dangerous on the roads. Through a child’s eyes, of course, it’s a massive adventure: building a snowman, throwing snowballs, slipping and sliding, and the delicious prospect of the cancellation of school.
“Goodbye England” was the lead single from Marling’s second album “I Speak Because I Can” and was the song that, to me, heralded the arrival of a very special talent. Her first record “Alas I Cannot Swim” is extremely good but what has struck me as miraculous about Marling is her progression from record to record in such scant time. There’s a discernible growth in confidence in her four albums, appearing in relative quick succession over the last five years, with each building musically on the last. It’s the closest thing I think I’ve heard in my lifetime to the sort of artistic evolution that, say, Dylan or Mitchell went through in the 60s. Ryan Adams also came pretty close for me in the run from Whiskeytown through “Heartbreaker” and up to “Love Is Hell” but there aren’t many others. I appreciate that puts her in some fairly exalted company but I think it’s a valid comparison; I genuinely think she’s that good. I guess there’s an argument that she wears her Bob and Joni influences too freely but, frankly, who doesn’t if you ply your trade as a singer songwriter with an acoustic guitar, and at 23 it’s not like she hasn’t still got time to transcend those influences.
I could have included a number of Marling’s songs in this list and, in fact, originally I’d intended to go with “Sophia” from her third album “A Creature I Don’t Know” – partly because I adore it and partly because I distinctly remember hearing it for the first time and just laughing at how absurdly good it was. So here’s a link to the video for “Sophia” as a little bonus: it is a marvelous thing.
For a while last year – if I’d been writing this last year – then I’d almost certainly have gone with “Night After Night”. Does it borrow a bit from Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” ? Yes (which she happily acknowledges). Does it matter ? Not really when it sounds as assured, as poised, as stunning as this. So there’s a link to that too: it is also a marvelous thing.
Or “Flicker & Fail” (very, very Joni Mitchell), or “I Was Just A Card”, or the brutal “Master Hunter”, or the also pretty brutal “Saved These Words”. There are worse ways to spend a Sunday (or any day but I’m posting this on a Sunday) than watching and listening to these.
“Goodbye England” though is the one that I return to with affectionate regularity and, in the spirit of the overall list, has the most personal associations. The song seems to be concerned with the breakdown of a relationship and a desire to escape but those aren’t the reasons that it really chimes for me (although the escape thing is something of a recurrent theme in stuff I like). Marling recounts a story about visiting a hilltop as a child with her father and looking at the snow covered landscape. So struck with the beauty of the scene, and no doubt contemplating the passage of time as his daughter grew up, her father asked her to one day bring him back to the same place, to remember how beautiful the world could be; just once before he died. It’s a feeling that you get a lot as a parent, those peculiar moments when you briefly see the world afresh through your child’s eyes and simultaneously understand how fleeting those moments are – in a way that your child doesn’t. It’s incredibly bittersweet, somehow wrapping up a sudden, strong sense of your own mortality and a desire to preserve the innocence of childhood. It’s not unhappy – those moments can be almost perfect – but there is an abiding melancholy to it. This song does that to me every time.
Sometimes serendipity lends a hand. The song begins with the lines:
You were so smart then
In your jacket and coat
My softest red scarf was warming your throat
A couple of winters ago I was building a snowman with my daughter and she was traipsing through the white stuff dressed in a red coat and scarf. I think in the context of the song that it’s presumably Marling remembering that her father was the “smart” one with her scarf warming his throat but it doesn’t really matter to me – it instantly triggers the memory of a little girl cheerfully conversing with the snowman rising up out of the ground.
As the song develops it explores the tension between leaving and staying that Marling feels as (presumably) a relationship ends, reflecting ruefully on the nature of love:
And a friend of mine says it’s good to hear
That you believe in love, even if set in fear
Well I’ll hold you there brother and set you straight
I only believe true love is frail and willing to break
She moves from disbelieving regret (I wrote my name in your book… only god knows why) to frantically pouring out some kind of explanation in a letter (I wrote an epic letter to you… it’s 22 pages front and back) before asserting that it’s too good to be used. A moment of candid self awareness – I tried to be a girl that likes to be used – before, finally, the confident assertion that I’m too good for that: there’s a mind under this hat and the decision to go (And I called them all and told them I’ve got to move).
That middle section is brilliant; sketching out the whirlwind of emotions and uncertainty that accompanies the breakdown of something in eleven perfectly judged lines, capturing the random little asides that the mind throws in to the mix. The wry, self deprecating and I bet you that he cracked a smile following only god knows why is a great touch, as is picking up the thread of being used – from her own letter being too good to be used to recognising that she had played a part that wasn’t her, wasn’t good enough for her, and that she was also too good to be used.
The tension in staying or going then wraps us back into that moment on the hill with her father, now torn between running away (as an independent adult) or returning to her family:
Feel like running
Feel like running
And we will keep you
We will keep you, little one
Safe from harm
Like an extra arm, you are a part of us.
“Little one” is what Marling was often called within her family and, serendipity again, is also something that I call my daughter – I doubt it’s uncommon. The “we will keep you” lines deliberately borrow from the mice’s “We Will Fix It” song from Bagpuss, a British kids show from the 70s, which perfectly distills the sense of comfort and nostalgia in returning to the safety of her parents. On another level the Bagpuss tune itself is adapted from a 13th century folk round (“Sumer Is Icumen In”), something that I imagine Marling would be well aware of and that she may well have picked up from her parents; her father was also a musician and ran a residential recording studio, her mother was a music teacher. If it is a nod back to her parents, grounding the song back in a folk tradition which they may have taught her, then it’s a lovely touch. Even if it isn’t then it’s still a delightful moment in the song, it doesn’t need the context to work.
The sense in the song is that her choice is to strike out on her own (it’s called “Goodbye England” after all) but with a promise to return:
I will come back here
Bring me back when I’m old
I want to lay here, forever in the cold.
I might be cold but I’m just skin and bones
And I never love England more than when covered in snow.
I guess as a parent that’s the best you can hope for, that your child grows up confident and assured enough to strike out on their own but always with that promise to return. Like an extra arm, they are a part of us. So next time it snows there will undoubtedly be part of me that sighs heavily and prepares to shovel lumps of it off the drive. There’ll also be part of me though that puts this record on and remembers the privileged time I spent in bringing up my daughter, the opportunities to see the world anew, and the many, many glorious, transient, bittersweet moments along the way.