Earlier this month, on September 13th, hot off the heels of both her Brit Award win and Dharohar Project, her joint effort with touring buddies, Mumford & Sons, the very young and very accomplished songstress, Laura Marling, presented us folk-crazed fans with her third full-length release, A Creature I Don’t Know. Created in collaboration with an Indian musicians’ collective, Dharohar is a brisk and frenzied EP. In contrast to that project, Marling’s new album is tamer, more contemplative in nature, yet the new effort clearly resonates with bits and pieces of those Eastern influences. It’s rather difficult to listen to the Dharohar EP and then listen to the fastest-paced tracks off the new album without noticing subtle changes in the artist’s style. Then again, the frenetic genius of “Devil’s Spoke” and “Darkness Descends” from her previous solo album, I Speak Because I Can, might seem to unravel this argument. Laura Marling has always blazed her own path so perhaps what works in Dharohar Project are the affinities with an entirely different breed of “folk music” that already existed in her approach to songwriting.
The most noticeable and talked about feature of A Creature I Don’t Know is the tug-of-war between the larger-than-life personas of Sophia and the Beast—both the wise parts and the unseemly, impulsive parts of ourselves magnified to expose their grotesqueness and mystique all at once. Marling’s learnedness permeates the entire album. Parts of the album pays homage to John Steinbeck, a literary interest she shares with boyfriend Marcus Mumford. On a more obscure level, Marling revealed in an interview for the New York Times review of Creature that she’d become entranced by the novel The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies. She noted her disappointment in not finding others with whom to share her newfound passion and indicated that the philosophical novel had brought the Sophia vs. the Beast boxing match to life. And what fantastic ring-side seats we’ve gotten! It took a while for the album to grow on me, but grow on me it did. The opening track, “The Muse,” really put me off (the odd combination of banjo, violin, bass, jazz piano, guitar, and enthusiastic vocals might have been a bit overwhelming), but over time, I’ve come to terms with the character she’s embodying in that song, and I’ve found that the arrangement of the tracks is solid. The themes intertwine, make surprise appearances, scurry off, and reappear, as do the dynamics. Marling’s delicate musical timing creates a rolling experience through whispered, almost conversational terrain and boisterous jigs that is both violent and playful, an exquisite balance to keep the Beast from overtaking Sophia, and vice versa.
Even the most energetic tracks (“The Beast,” “Sophia”) start out slow and build into cacophonous romps, aided in places by an excitable electric guitar. Of those, “My Friends” builds beautifully and burns the brightest. Ms. Marling’s command over volume is really refreshing in a world of repetitive monotones, where dub-step and sappy chart-toppers seem to rule supreme. The sparse, acoustic “Night After Night” feels almost as though Marling is reading a poem aloud in a very intimate space, which is essentially how she recorded it. The hushed narration is punctuated by the slightest of crescendos, for an effect that is simply breath-taking and which recalls Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Laura Marling tends to surprise new listeners with her one-of-a-kind voice, which carries a somewhat husky timbre that makes her sound decades older than twenty-one. As such, it’s incredibly difficult to put that voice in a category, though it seems no reviewer can avoid the Joni Mitchell comparison, a sound one can easily pick out from the first few verses of the album as well as throughout. Marling certainly finds as much inspiration in that older generation of folk celebrities as she does in the pages of complex novels. From the tempered “Salinas” to the fabulous finale, “All My Rage”. Marling does an incredible job of getting inside the heads of her own characters.
Aside from the pervasive rhyming (“I Was Just a Card” in particular), which bothers me on and off, this fresh release has dazzled me with its tryst with the philosophical and literary. Even so, I haven’t found it possible to change my initial conclusion, “It’s really intelligent, the songs are great — I still like her other albums more.” There’s just no way to overlook the fact that some tracks are simply less memorable. Having listened to the album constantly for several weeks, I still can’t tell you much about “Rest in Bed” and “Don’t Ask Me Why”, even as I listen to them. Yet such personal preferences might owe themselves to a deficiency of knowledge when it comes to Steinbeck and Davies. I can’t help but assume that I’m missing something here because it’s hard to imagine what Ms. Marling is missing as an artist.
The dynamism, the passion, the rage, the wisdom all interweave so gloriously. Whether or not you’ll be able to relate to the characters, or catch all the scholarly allusions, or love this album as much as the previous one, A Creature I Don’t Know is worth weeks of listens.