“The difficult balance between wanting and needing” was professed by Laura Marling as the key idea from which her third album, A Creature I Don’t Know, was sired. True to her word, this is an album that constructs tension and interplay in every aspect of itself – between lyrical tales of the predatory, seductive “Beast” and his counterpart, the divine, motherly “Sophia, goddess of power”, and between the musical timbres of sombre choirs, gobbling banjos and jaunty jazz pianos – constantly flirting and flitting between various musical and lyrical directions.
In its more conservative moments, A Creature Don’t Know deftly picks up the guitar-driven, narrative song-writing style so stongly present in its predecessor, I Speak Because I Can. Tracks such as “Night After Night” – a macabre waltz featuring only a guitar and Marling’s crisp, pinpoint vocals – are reminiscent of songs such as “Made by Maid” and “Blackberry Stone”, in their instrumental reservation and peppering of poignant, introspective utterances. The increasing musical austerity and restraint of Marling’s work demonstrates a burgeoning confidence in her identity as a songwriter.
However, it is at the points where Marling is able to lace this characteristic song-writing style with more experimental, genre-hopping instrumentation that A Creature I Don’t Know is truly testament to her ever-developing abilities. Tracks such as “The Beast” – a glowering vortex of a song, whose snarling, bluesy electric guitars and half-sung, half-slurred lyrics of lust and hunger claw the entirety of the album into landscapes darker than those broached by the more predictable tracks – a tonal shift by which the remainder of the album is consumed.
Opening track “The Muse” best exemplifies the manner in which Marling manages to interweave the convention of folk music with bolder innovations. Its playful, provocative instrumentation humourously juxtaposes a banjo solo with jazz piano, yet dangerously belies a set of sinister lyrics which lust for confusion and loss of control – “I feel again the blues of longing, ever longing to be confused.” Marling crafts a song that sails slickly between appearance and reality, and both encourages and defies the anticipation of her own conventional style. Both the opening track and the album as a whole illustrate an artist who is not afraid to be playful nor ambiguous in her craft, and ensures that both she and her work remain creatures whose musical futures we cannot profess to know.
It’s so often the case these days that a singer-songwriter arrives on the scene, produces a well received debut, is touted as the next best thing, and disappears without trace, bedridden with a nasty case of second (or even third) album syndrome. Whatever happened to Badly Drawn Boy after he did the About a Boy soundtrack? Damien Rice, anyone? Ed Sheeran may go the same way, but let’s hope not. Anyway, Laura Marling has shown with her latest release that she will never be in danger of falling into this trap – A Creature I Don’t Know is the third in a string of three consistently brilliant albums that retains a little of the heartfelt introspection that shot her to fame in 2007, and branches out even further into the realms of country and blues.
With ‘Ghosts’, the first track off her debut album ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, Marling introduced a sensitive, quietly spoken brand of folk-pop that possessed a kind of knowing naivety. Seemingly every vocal line on the album tailed off with a hush-hush brevity that emphasized the sincerity and invention of the lyrics. On her latest effort, however, Marling has moved beyond this phase into a new field of maturity, and she is not afraid to let her influences show. All throughout the album are shades of Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Neil Young and Robert Plant.
The opener, ‘The Muse’ introduces a new forthright and American-style Marling in a husky blues, the vocals dipping into a conversational style that resurfaces throughout the album. The Joni Mitchell-style ‘Don’t Ask Me’ segues deftly into the album’s centrepiece, ‘Salinas’, a perfect fusion of folk, blues and country that evokes Dylan and PJ Harvey, and builds into a stirring final crescendo, with full band. Similar is ‘The Beast’, where a more sinister, earthy side of Marling emerges. ‘I suggest you be grateful there’s no blood on my hands’, she sings – here is a songwriter who has emerged from tentative beginnings and can now hold her own alongside her influences, of which Neil Young is clearly one on this track. Following this, ‘Night after Night’ comes almost as an antidote to the previous bombast, a strikingly dark, stripped-down ballad about fading love that employs a stunning melody, and embodies precise and beautiful songcraft.
With A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling has somewhat transcended the indie-folk genre she was originally born out of, leaving Mumford and Sons, to name just one fellow act, far behind. With a maturity of songcraft seldom seen in a songwriter in their early twenties, she has further cemented her position in a tradition of quality female folk-pop songwriters going back to Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro in the 70s. Long may it continue.