In spite of winning Best British Female at the 2011 BRIT Awards, Laura Marling still remains, puzzlingly, an unknown quantity to many a household. Her first two albums, 2008’s Alas, I cannot Swim and 2010’s I Speak Because I Can both garnered Mercury prize nominations in their respective years- yet the diminutive Miss Marling still managed to fly beneath the radar.
Perhaps then, that Vivienne Westwood-styled statue was to serve as recognition for Marling’s continued progression between albums one and two, alongside an expectation that album number three would make for at least equally engaging listening.
Fortunately, A Creature I Don’t Know more than meets the measure as the girl from Eversely takes on the transformation into a woman of the world. This time around, all of the songs on show were completed in craft- during the moments of solace, while touring- before being laid before Ethan Johns, continuing production duties from I Speak Because I Can. As a result Laura Marling’s sound, this time round, serves as a more assured and telling account of her capabilities- hopefully allowing her to shake off that restrictive ‘nu-folk’ tag that has a habit of keeping acts from the airwaves.
‘The Muse’ opens the album, taking on an American Blues guise on guitar as Marling delivers an almost femme fatale narrative in semi-spoken word. Jazz-brush drumming slides the song along as Marling’s subtly sexual charge teases in its own hot-and-cold circularity. Countering the tension, follower ‘I Was Just a Card’ delivers a disquieting regret over plucked acoustic, always hinting at a rise to resolution before tempering back into a morning-after malaise.
‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ stands as a more traditional folk number as Laura Marling, in chanteuse mode, delivers her own intermittent fleetings with a number of characters before exposing an inner pain and turmoil that lingers within. It is by this point in the album that it’s evident Marling’s vocals and lyrics have moved on from the Thames Estuary where they had resided on earlier efforts. There is a sense of young adulthood throughout ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’ that was made somewhat episodic, at times, by the escapism seen on Alas, I Cannot Swim.
Running without pause into ‘Salinas,’ the album, here really begins to settle into its surroundings. The scenery for many a Steinbeck story, ‘Salinas’ is idealised as a time before time, in a land caught between the pillars of sin and salvation. The song is of Miss Marling’s stylised and untameable romance of her parents’ first encounters, as they pursue their passions, flitting between the faithful and felonious deities in the skyline, before Laura settles into her own encounters of similar escapade.
Chasing the elation comes ‘The Beast.’ At first, much more muted and ominous than ‘Salinas,’ Ethan John’s production is able to convey a certain angst akin to the lowlier moments displayed on Ray LaMontagnes’ ‘Trouble.’ With an after-hours air thick with indiscretion in prevade, the song finally kicks into melee, similar to Marling’s own ‘Devil’s Spoke’ from 2010. A pounding madness from the bass notes add to a heat in the air, on verge of thunder- making ‘The Beast’ a notable high point on an ensured album.
‘Night After Night’ then descends the moribund to a bittersweet and musing despair. Laura Marling, in character again, maligns a loneliness that haunts within, before telling tale of a boy in similar setting. The circulating of one another then sweeps into a swirling psychosis of sound before leaving an eerily calm aftermath.
Amongst the dread, ‘My Friends’ applies a welcoming respite to the fold. Guitars indebted to José González’ cover of ‘Heartbeats’ compliment a cheerier longing that accelerates midway into a joyful medley of organ, banjo and skiffle drumming. Afterwards ‘Rest in the Bed’ emulates the song structure of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Scarborough Fair’ in a slowed menace and forbode, propelled by a heart-beating-percussion that brings in competing musical elements to eventually build and crescendo into one another
Penultimately, comes the most uplifting number on ‘A Creature I Don’t Know.’ ‘Sophia’ drifts in on plucked and flickered guitar string as Miss Marling ponders the distance between ones who were once close. Gradually the song begins to show its true nature, as a chrysalis in emergence. An assured and tempoed transformation unfolds as more heavyweight drums and the first glimpses of electric instruments on record help transcend the song into a soundscape which soars beyond the diminished, lamenting character portrayed within the songs introduction.
‘All My Rage’ also allows the album to end with an achieved sense of conclusion. Taking on Irish folk and revisiting the alto vocals of old; Marling’s saga of catharsis brings relief to the vivid depictions of debauchery, isolation, lust, love and salvation that run on the album, the whole way through. Marling’s early career comparisons with Joni Mitchell are rationalised here as the wind and the sea are allowed to swathe away the angst and betrayal that haunt Marling and contained her within the construction of A Creature I Don’t Know.
A wholeheartedly sincere and accomplished album number 3 has more than hallmarked Laura Marling as an established talent. More assured, more assertive, and with an added maturity to her songcraft, Laura Marling can now reside centre stage among the number of established female performers of noteworthy talent. With more on the way planned for 2012, don’t surprised to find Laura Marling becoming more than just a hidden treasure in the British music scene.
A Creature I Don’t Know is out now.
Worth listening to…
Night After Night
All My Rage