I guess I approached this record with anticipation tempered by some trepidation. The anticipation came from having heard Laura Marling
preview some of the songs from A Creature I Don’t Know
live and a belief that, at just 21, she had already established strong songwriting credentials. Marling’s 2010 release, I Speak Because I Can,
achieved wide acclaim and helped her win an unlikley Brit Award. The trick is would it prove more than the proverbial tough act to follow.
After several spins, it seems those doubts were unfounded. A Creature I Don’t Know delivers. Marling works off a broader palette on the new record, keen to experiment, to extend and play around with her material. The sensitivity and inquisitiveness are still there, the worldly-wise and the abstract yearning but musically there’s a harder edge to this collection. Other than the pure folk-rock excursions, it has a touch less Englishness about it too. Yet it could also only be Laura Marling. Her trademarks don’t need patents; they are dotted here and there in case you needed a reminder. Little vocal inflections, soft sing-speak, the odd familiar phrase or snatch of melody all have been made her own.
A Creature is a solid work with a fair share of literary bites and inspirations. The darkly amusing concept of the feminine divine, from the Robertson Davies novel Rebel Angels, is central to “Sophia” and also crops up in “The Beast”. Marling’s fascination with John Steinbeck’s third wife, Elaine, gave rise to “Salinas”. The refrain ‘I am from Salinas, where the women go forever’ echoes the stoicism of a heroic woman watching a great man die. The record’s title comes from British Biographer, Jehanne Wake’s novel Sisters of Fortune and, supported by the almost brutal cover art, helps cement the idea of the beast as a metaphor for complex, unnatural or unspoken desire.
That said, the opener “The Muse” is not quite what you expect. Jazzy with an unusually fast tempo and a stylised, at times half-spoken vocal amid impish piano and stiffly brushed drums, it deviates from more familiar Marling territory musically, though not lyrically: “Don’t you be scared of me, I’m nothing but the beast, And I’ll call on you when I need to feast”. So a scary muse, even! Other songs here offer a smoother transition from the previous album with “Don’t Ask Me Why” which has her ‘looking for answers in unsavoury places’ and “Rest In The Bed” being the prime examples. Themes of strength and weakness, of love and hate also suggest familiar territory yet there is a sense that Marling is recording her thoughts in a more random fashion here, rather than creating some kind of feminine thesis. The beast might be a common strand but this is no concept album.
There are seminal moments aplenty on this record. The raking, angular electric guitars on “Salinas” and “The Beast” have a kind of verve and intensity that calls to mind Fairport Convention in their trad folk rock zenith, say on the outro to “Tam Lin” from Liege and Lief. Both songs begin with a deceptive gentleness that is soon overtaken by surprisingly strident, layered guitar-led phrases. In a sense the first song prepares you for the second and both indicate a style that Marling could go on to develop further in her music.
“Sophia” is probably the closest thing here to a hit record, a love child of Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens. It starts softly with the vocal uncertain in its fragility. It builds unpredictably with a strongly sung verse two via Marling’s soaring melisma and intense acoustic strumming and heads towards a full-blown country sound with snatches of Greek folk melody and some angelic harmonies thrown in. The final track is an absolute corker too. “All My Rage” brings the house down in a rousing, cathartic melee of swirling skirts as Laura Marling lets rip with a lyrical tongue in cheek.
A Creature I Don’t Know stands up well against its feted predecessor and can only add to Laura Marling’s reputation as a songwriter and musician. There are no real flat spots and the rockier stance on several tracks might bring in some new listeners. Vocally she is at times an acquired taste and some may find the stylising and echoes of Joni Mitchell a bit too prevalent. On the other hand it’s difficult to avoid her self-contained web of poetic passion.
Essential Tracks: “Sophia”, “The Beast”, and “All My Rage”