Laura Marling Bewitches on “A Creature I Don’t Know”

Laura Marling -- 'A Creature I Don't Know' -- Ribbon Records -- 4 STARS

Laura Marling is a heartbreaker. Through heavily publicized relationships with the lead singers of Noah & the Whale and Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling had a lot of weighty emotional material to sift through on her first two solo releases. However, on her latest album, “A Creature I Don’t Know,” Marling has proven her ability to mature and expand her musical scope into more uplifting territory while still maintaining her earlier albums’ critically acclaimed passionate candor. On “Creature,” Laura Marling displays her talent at crafting poignant yet abstract lyrics, an eagerness to experiment beyond her traditional folk comfort zone with a variety of genre influences, and stunning vocals that fully accommodate her expansive emotional range.

Laura Marling began her musical career as a 16-year-old self-recording in Britain. After playing as an original member of Noah & the Whale, she released her first solo albums, “Alas I Cannot Swim” and “I Speak Because I Can.” These albums were characterized by soulful innocence and a prevailingly dark atmosphere. The tone of her newest album marks a departure from her earlier work, with confidence and defiant perseverance pervading many of the tracks. She still plays the role of jilted lover effectively, but the music is now marked by a more hopeful delivery. In particular, the album’s final track “All My Rage” embodies this bold optimism and empowerment through a bright, melodic blend of guitar, banjo, and beautiful vocals—“I leave my rage to the sea and the sun”—reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, to whom Marling is often compared.

Marling creates her more positive tone by means of wide-ranging musical experimentation. On the first track, “The Muse,” a jazzy melody passes between violin and piano to banjo and guitar. Although the jazz inflections could sound incongruous when played on the banjo, her unexpected move towards the genre mirrors the song’s dominant theme of searching for artistic inspiration: “Younger, ever younger, in my hunger / For a muse.” The jazz influence continues to great effect on the next track, “I Was Just A Card,” which features brass instruments that back the guitar’s jazz chords and Marling’s expressive voice. The song’s smooth, rich tones lend a feeling of assurance to its contemplative mood, and prove a welcome addition to her earlier albums’ more basic sonic palette.

Later in the album, on tracks like “The Beast,” “Salinas,” and “Sophia,” Marling incorporates melodies and staples of classic American country rock, which intensify her spirited songs. Marling uses sudden key changes to add moments of dramatic tension. She also occasionally changes the melody and instrumentation entirely at key moments to make her songs more dynamic. The first single from the album “Sophia” exhibits this prowess in its slow development from lyrical acoustic balladry into an anthemic, high-energy folk-rock climax.

Thankfully, though, the haunting beauty and compositional simplicity of Marling’s earlier work recurs in the middle of the album, where the emphasis is placed almost exclusively on Marling’s voice and lone, plaintive guitar. The spare aesthetic of tracks like “Rest in Bed” evokes misery and desolation, especially when juxtaposed with the newfound determination present on many of the album’s other songs. A sense of underlying moral indecision pervades the album, and is conveyed lyrically through recurring references to God and the devil and the overdubbing of discordant, harshly distorted electric guitars.

The lyrics of the album revolve around a rather abstract though still cohesive story of love, loss, and redemption. Marling’s poetic lyrics are rather dense, and sometimes nearly inscrutably hidden by metaphor. However, at such points the beauty of both the words and the melody easily overcome any confusion of meaning. For the most part, Marling’s message is clear, and often quite uplifting. Marling has crafted a beautiful, powerful, and poignant work. By taking the best elements of her earlier albums and imbuing them with new vitality and direction she has simultaneously avoided sacrificing any of her original charm and stagnating.

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