A Creature I Don’t Know
Laura Marling grows up fast. Only 17 years old during the recording of Alas, I Cannot Swim – an early benchmark in the British folk revival that now dominates the U.K. mainstream – she’s since matured into a classic songwriter, boasting a voice that recalls the folksingers of her parents’ generation. On her third album, Marling continues building her way toward a fuller, broader sound, adding touches of chamber pop and amplified guitar noise to an otherwise acoustic base. Returning to the producer’s seat is Ethan Johns, who knows when to zoom in on Marling’s voice, a conversational alto that croons personal details about her love life with the literate, old-world flair of an indie folk Jane Austen, and when to pull out the wide-angle lens for panoramic rock songs like “The Beast.”
A Creature I Don’t Know is all about beasts. They share Marling’s bed in “The Beast,” a five-minute crescendo of minor-key guitar arpeggios and pounding percussion, and roar in the background of “Salinas,” an imaginative character sketch set in John Steinbeck’s hometown. On the album’s opening number, “The Muse,” Marling even imagines herself as one of their kind, pursuing either a lover or a bit of inspiration with animal-like hunger. “Don’t you be scared of me,” she sings, her voice never recalling Joni Mitchell as vividly as it does here. “I’m nothing but the beast, and I’ll call on you when I need to feast.”
Like the 1960s folk bards she so audibly admires, Marling delivers her lyrics like they’re lines of poetry, launching into a womanly vibrato one moment and a bemused speaking voice the next. The elastic delivery helps push her songs forward, adding kinetic energy to the softest of ballads without ruining any sense of intimacy. Whenever other musicians join her, though, Marling straightens out her prose, allowing the instruments some extra room to breathe. Everyone thinks of her as a solo artist, but Marling knows how to handle herself as a bandleader, and Creature features some of her best ensemble songs to date.
Working with her full touring lineup, she packs the bigger songs full of keyboards, strings, fingerplucked guitar, and even the occasional toot from a horn. It’s rare that everyone plays at once; when they do, it’s like the action-packed climax of an art house film, the simple increase in volume magnified by the calmness of the music before it. “Sophia” slowly builds itself into one of the album’s largest moments, the drums making a fashionably late entrance at the three-minute mark to turn what began as a ballad into an uptempo folk-rocker. One song later, “All My Rage” ends the album on another high note, pairing a Celtic melody with lilting gang vocals.
Still, Marling doesn’t sound like she’s ready to leave the coffeehouse completely behind. “Night After Night” is stripped-down folk at its most confessional, comprising nothing more than an acoustic guitar and softly spun lyrics about love gone sour. “I should just leave instead of deceive you, but I don’t,” she sings, her voice weighed down by a sense of weariness far beyond her 21 years. She brightens her tone slightly for “Rest In The Bed,” a ballad in which the two characters are still in love, but even that song has a fatalistic, slightly dark refrain: “All that I have are these bones … And all you can do is promise me bold that you won’t let me grow dark or cold as long as we both shall live.”
Marling has always sounded like an adult, even when she wasn’t one. Now that she’s got the actual years to back up her world-weary tone, she’s all the more thrilling. Maybe it’s the beast within.