Album Review: Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know

Laura Marling: A Creature I Don't Know
Laura Marling: A Creature I Don't Know (Courtesy of Virgin Records)

Singer/songwriter Laura Marling was only 16 years old when she emerged on the British indie scene in 2007 thanks to a handful of infectious singles made available on her MySpace profile. She quickly made a name for herself throughout the UK thanks to a heavy touring schedule and a few high-profile gigs. Marling started out as part of the English "new folk" scene (which includes bands like Mumford & Sons and Noah & the Whale), but she ended up carving out a path of her own with a starker, stranger and more jazz-inflected sound. Her old-soul persona, husky voice and gift for building quirky, catchy folk songs is very reminiscent of contemporaries such as Martha Wainwright and Feist but delves a bit deeper into the world of '60 folk rock — evoking the legendary Brit-folk voices of Shirley Collins, Sandy Denny, and Linda Thompson.

Now 21 years old, Laura's already on her third album, has garnered two Mercury Music Prize nominations, released an EP produced by Jack White and continues to reap a ton of critical acclaim. It's fair to say that Laura Marling is doing something right. Her latest album, A Creature I Don't Know, takes Laura even further in her musical career with the confidence of someone twice her age. The album has a grassroots Americana feel at times and a much fuller sound, adding touches of chamber pop and more amplified guitar to her traditional acoustic base.

A Creature I Don't Know is Marling's most scenic and adventurous work yet, where we hear her wrestling with expectations, emotions, beasts, deceit and her own personal vices. The record's title comes from British biographer Jehanne Wake's novel Sisters of Fortune and is illustrated by the almost brutal cover art that illuminates Laura's theme of the beast as a metaphor for convoluted, unnatural or unspoken desire.

Her opening track, "The Muse," sets the tone of the album, shuffling along with a blues guitar/banjo combo and a soothing jazz double bass layered underneath. It's also the introduction to one of the reoccurring characters of the album, The Beast, as well as the set-up for the album's theme, which is told through stories that Marling describes as "the difficult balance between wanting and needing."

The album is anchored in the form of the track "The Beast," a devastating tale that tells the story of how the emancipation promised by love was instead replaced by confusion and deception. This ends up producing some very stark and angry imagery: "You're ok now, I suppose / You're not pulled by the rope / I'm pulled by the pull on my throat / I'm pulled by the rope / I swing from the trees into the slope / Hold my head high, just by the tip of my toes... Put your eyes away if you can't bear to see your old lady laying down next to the beast / Tonight he lies with me...and here come the beast."

"Sophia" slowly builds itself into one of the album's most notable moments, beginning with a dusky croon that unfolds into a wry sort of sing-speak. The song begins with a desolate acoustic pace, with the drums making a late entrance around the three-minute mark, only to turn what began as a ballad into an up-tempo folk-rocker.

"Salinas" is an imaginative character sketch set in John Steinbeck's hometown. Marling's fascination with John Steinbeck's third wife, Elaine, was the inspiration, and the refrain "I am from Salinas, where the women go forever" echoes the chronicle of a heroic woman who had the unfortunate circumstance of watching a great man die.

Some people seem to claim that Laura Marling is too aloof and distant to properly connect with, but when has an air of mystery ever really been an obstacle to being a successful songwriter? I find her sense of secrecy to be more alluring and captivating than standoffish. A Creature I Don't Know is an album full of breathtaking songs that deserve to be investigated for months to come. As Laura's career continues, she is slowing unfolding before our eyes, unveiling not only her talents but the deeper, inner secrets she's hidden away in her youth. What's truly the most spectacular thing about her is that, as she comes into her adulthood, her poetic songwriting just continues to evolve into something that much more extraordinary.

—Melanie Walker, Co-Music Director