It’s hard not to feel both twinges of cynical suspicion and mild concern when it comes to Laura Marling’s rapidly rising starlet status. Already shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize twice, signed to a major label with plenty of marketing muscle power and encumbered by gossip-friendly side-stories of past relationships with members of Noah & The Whale and Mumford & Sons, the intense focus on someone so young could potentially be Marling’s premature personal and artistic undoing. Certainly to her credit though, Marling seems to be striving to dodge such distractions, to sharpen the focus on making music on her own still-to-be fully defined terms. With the newly-released A Creature I Don’t Know therefore, Marling takes an assertive – if still work-in-progress – step forward.
Picking-up where last year’s acclaimed I Speak Because I Can left off, this new long-player finds Marling taking greater control in presenting her compositions through earthier, warmer and less static arrangements, even if sometimes her songwriting doesn’t quite keep up the same new pace. In the former respect, A Creature I Don’t Know undoubtedly leaves its mark memorably and alluringly. Crucially, there are fewer Britfolk clichés to keep Marling as easily pigeon-holed as before, with more global influences in the mix throughout. Thus, the opening gypsy-jazz trappings of “The Muse” make a playful nod towards Django Reinhardt; the banjo-scuffling and rhythmic gallop of “My Friends” holds a bluegrass-meets-mariachi vibe; the multi-part “Sophia” suggests an intertwined affection for Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris; the startling menace of “The Beast” builds to a discordant desert-rock crescendo that might even spike the interest of 16 Horsepower fans; and the soaring closer “All My Rage” reaches up loftily with rapturous gospel-slanted sea shanty swelling. There’s still room for some sparse acoustic intimacy however, with the dainty “Night After Night” being a blatant but well-executed homage to Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room.
Whilst the overall the artistic advancement is decidedly impressive for such a fledgling talent, Marling does at times sell herself a little short on the lyrical and vocal front. With the former element, a bit more self-editing could have weeded-out jarring rhyming couplets such as “Oh, I have been wandering/Where I have been pondering” and “There lies a man of my heart/A fine and complete work of art.” Moreover, Marling’s pipes sometimes strain with forced or slurred transatlantic accents in trying to fit the newer wider arrangements; revealing that her increasing penchant for role-playing isn’t yet as seamless and uncontrived as it needs to be. But such minor gripes ultimately don’t distract too much from the richness and infectiousness of the gathered recordings. However, it’s far better for Marling to learn from her own mistakes in future than to have them forcibly polished-out by a more pushy producer.
So overall, A Creature I Don’t Know is a substantial and commendable creative success that is destined to propel Laura Marling even further onwards. Let’s just hope that she can hold her nerve enough to mature with a tighter focus on her penmanship and vocal technique, without self-defeating shortcuts or too much extraneous pressure.
Virgin Records / Ribbon Music