In her native England, singer-songwriter Laura Marling, who just turned 21 in February, has often been described as an old soul, wise beyond her years. Her work is indeed preternaturally mature in...
In her native England, singer-songwriter Laura Marling, who just turned 21 in February, has often been described as an old soul, wise beyond her years. Her work is indeed preternaturally mature in its worldview and self-assured in its execution, but -- as her third album and Ribbon Music debut attests -- it’s equally informed by a youthful sort of fearlessness. On A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling is forthright about her emotions, frank about her desires, and she’s not above having a bit of fun before the going gets too rocky. For example, the album’s final track, “All My Rage,” has a purposely misleading title: it’s an exorcism, a celebration, dancing away accumulated trouble on the disc’s liveliest arrangement, a disarmingly upbeat climax to an engrossingly candid journey.
While so many artists of any age attempt to locate their inner child, Marling, with a sometime steely gaze, measures the prerogatives of youth against the looming realities of adulthood – the spectre of mortality, the betrayals of love, the balm of sex, the yearning for companionship, the need for independence. Of late, England has produced some impressively sophisticated young pop artists like Adele, James Blake and the XX, but the folk-oriented Marling remains in a class of her own. As the Times Of London recently posited, “Who else is making music as ambitious, as haunting, as centuries-straddling, as thought-provoking and artistically tenacious as this? And the answer is: nobody. No, really. Not a soul.”
Marling, who started out -- briefly but auspiciously -- with a stint in the group Noah and the Whale, was a mere 16 when she independently released her first singles and almost immediately gained serious stature as a key figure on Britain’s burgeoning young folk scene, alongside such artists and friends as singer-actor Johnny Flynn and Mumford & Sons. The two startlingly self-assured albums that followed -- Alas I Cannot Swim (2008) and I Speak Because I Can (2010) -- brought the self-effacing and relatively shy Marling an extraordinary level of acclaim in her homeland, with each of them in turn being nominated for the U.K.’s prestigious Mercury Prize. She subsequently won a 2011 Brit Award, England’s equivalent to the Grammy, as Best British Female and an NME Award as Best Solo Artist.
Though each of her previous albums evinced a strong, unique voice, this new disc, says Marling, “feels more like my piece of work because, from the start, I knew what I wanted it to feel like in terms of the tone of the album. It always made sense to me but I’m more conscious of my work not being quite so cryptic. There are parts of it that are more fierce and aggressive. Recording ‘The Beast’ and ‘Night After Night’ were almost unbearable – for everyone involved -- because they are quite brutal. I don’t think ‘The Beast’ is going to be a pleasurable song for anyone to listen to. I wanted it to have the feel of a punch in the face. And I hope it does.”
Those two tracks come at the midpoint of A Creature I Don’t Know, and they represent the bracing but brilliant heart of the disc. Rather than forcing you to recoil, “The Beast” draws you in with its raw, confessional quality and its turbulent, electric guitar parts. “Night After Night” is starkly minimal yet just as intense, recalling the brooding quality of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No, 2,” an erotic reverie gone sour. What comes before and after, however, is more upbeat. After opening the album with the flirtatious, slightly tongue-in-cheek “The Muse” and continuing with the gorgeous, Joni Mitchell-like “Don’t Ask Me Why,” Marling guides you down an ever-darkening path, but then offers light at the end of the tunnel, with tracks like “Sophia” and “All My Rage.” “Sophia” is an arrangement tour-de-force, boasting Marling’s most full-throated vocal performance. It starts out as deceptively simple, just guitar and voice, before layers of background voices rise up, the strings swell and the drums kick in and it builds to a stirring conclusion. Marling keeps up the high spirits on “All My Rage,” which feels like the climax of a rowdy barroom session, with everyone within earshot joining in on vocals or whatever instrument they might have handy.