Sunday, 18 September 2011

Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know (Album Review 2011)

Laura Marling, once of Noah and The Whale and one time Mystery Jets guest, is riding high on a brace of recent awards: Best British Female at the Brits and Best Solo Artist from The NME. Deservedly so, as last year’s I Speak Because I Can is an outstanding and mesmerising follow-up to Marling’s promising, yet one-dimensional, début. The two years between the first two albums have lifted Marling as a songwriter and a musician, strengthened the relationship with producer Ethan Johns, and helped find that perfect sound. Writing during her tour, Marling rejected many early songs, and delayed the release of third album A Creature I Don’t Know in favour of new and reworked material. The album compliments the previous release wonderfully, with similar themes, ideas and passion.

A Creature I Don’t Know starts with The Muse, a song that proves Marling is not scared of a challenge. This brings together funk guitar and jazz piano to startling effect, with smart vibrant lyrics; at its centre is the line: “Keep those thoughts from sight; follow me into the night; and you can call on me when you need… the light”. It’s not just the words, but what Marling does with her voice, to form a new unique instrument. I Was Just A Card continues the same style, in spite of quiet moments and an auspicious start. More great vocals with Marling showing her range. Don’t Ask Me builds beautifully as the prelude to the mighty Salinas, the latter inspired by the work of John Steinbeck and immediately conjuring vivid images: “My mother was a saviour; of six foot of bad behaviour...”. Like the prelude, this builds slowly to a magnificent vocal climax before starting again in more determined mood, like a completely different song, and concluding with an angelic choir.

The Beast (a recurring character/theme/mood through the album) is one of the best songs Marling has made. Again build-up is the key to this mesmerising fusion of Marling’s vocals and distorted Mogwai-esque electric guitar with a demonic character all of its own, devouring everything else. This is captivating stuff that just keeps building and driving forward to a sudden indeterminate, somewhat unresolved, end. Night After Night blends classical guitar with delicate vocals into a heart-breaking love song about relationship, decay and infidelity. It takes skill and control to sustain this level of focus and engagement over the five minutes duration. The line: “He screams in the night, I scream in the day. We weep in the evening and lie naked and pray” is brilliantly direct. 

The first half of My Friends is probably the weakest point on the album but the second comes alive with Mumford-style guitars and energised strings. Rest In The Bed borrows the vocal melody from Hope In The Air before taking a shape of its own. The coldness in both music and voice is astonishing. A late highlight is the excellent Sophia – another example of control and poise. This quickly becomes about eight songs in one, Marling not settling on any one thought or idea. The gorgeous choral arrangement at the core is just exquisite before a massive transformation into rampant country-rock complete with multi-layered guitars and a liberated vocal delivery. The closer, All My Rage is a great song around a single simple idea to finish the album in great mood and spirit.

A Creature I Don’t Know is the sound of Laura Marling challenging herself, her identity and womanhood. These themes: love, sexuality, religion, strength and anger are represented in every note, every line and every song. She weaves stories and characters around such wonderful musical arrangements and the vocals impishly jump from sultry and reflective to dark and menacing. This is an artist right in the moment, understanding her own talent and skill, making the some of the best music of her life. Marling has taken the essence of Alas I Cannot Swim – the poetry, the intricacy and the intimacy, and fused it with the power, the darkness and the beauty of I Speak Because I Can. This is another work of art.

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