When Laura Marling released I Speak Because I Can in March last year, she had the nation’s music press climbing over each other to lavish her with ever-more stratospherically high praise. At last, one of the starlets of the British ‘nu-folk’ scene had made something both complex and enduring; truer and more nuanced than the Mumfords’ bloated banjo-rock, yet less aggravating than Billy Bragg soundalike Frank Turner. On I Speak, Marling demonstrated how she had matured into a writer capable of creating some of the most poignant, emotive, and mysterious songs of a generation.
While A Creature I Don’t Know marginally fails to match those dizzying heights, it is a more than a commendable continuation – if not a great evolution – of its predecessor. Many of the tracks on here would be at home on I Speak: in particular, ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ gradually works a pretty opening riff up into a subtle, strings-infused number not dissimilar to the softness of ‘Blackberry Stone’, while on lead single ‘Sophia’, Marling’s voice hits the sweet spot between the flighty, ethereal quality of Joanna Newsom and the huskiness of Blue-era Joni Mitchell. Nevertheless, several of the arrangements on A Creature see Marling at her most adventurous to date: opening gambit ‘The Muse’ dissolves into deliciously jazzy piano licks, while the jaw-dropping ‘Salinas’ cheekily catches one unawares with a crunchy mid-track guitar line. There are times, such as on ‘I Was Just A Card’, when a lack of gutsiness gives the song’s texture a somewhat naff, mum-rock feel, but by and large, each song hits its mark.
Lyrically, Marling plumbs depths yet darker and more difficult than on her last full-length. Her stoic sense of humour and her masterful manipulation of allegory, which blossomed on last year’s LP, has now ripened fully into (whisper it quietly) an almost Dylan-esque writing style. Never has this been heard better than on ‘The Beast’, a sprawling, roiling colossus of a song which conjures the blackest, most animalistic spectre of mankind and infuses it with macabre images of nooses, violence, and female submission. As on I Speak, many of the tracks deal with the burdens of womanhood and her turbulent (and often unfulfilling) relationships with men: ‘He screams in the night/I scream in the day/We weep in the evening/And lie naked and pray’ sings she on ‘Night After Night’, seemingly an unfaithful wife’s lament to a marriage now bereft of love.
Laura Marling may only be twenty-one, but she already possesses a body of work to which an established mainstay of the indie-folk realm would well aspire. A Creature I Don’t Know is another dazzling addition to her portfolio; while many tracks revolve around the sombre, brooding folk music she clearly adores, the blither, fuller instrumentation on much of this new material could represent an interesting point of departure for her future work.