Laura Marling: “A Creature I Don’t Know”

Laura Marling’s third album is a dark one, and it seems like there’s a monster lurking in every shadow. In one song she summons Sophia, the goddess of wisdom—but in place of a deity she gets a beast. In another song, the beast rears its head again, only this time it’s inside her, a part of her. The whole album abounds with horrifying and unholy revelations; “I know it’s not right, but it’s real” she sings at one point, and her words could well serve as the album’s mantra. For ten songs straight, demons file in as if on cue, and while the singer may not know these creatures by name, she offers the distinct impression that she’s met each one of them before, on some other night and in some other pool of shadows.

In other words, we’ve got ourselves a heavy one here—and this from a singer who’s only 21 years old! Not that the weightiness of these songs is any great surprise; Laura Marling was inadvertently one of the pioneers of the UK’s “neo-folk” scene, bur while groups like Mumford & Sons struggled under the burden of an entire movement, Marling seemed preternaturally adept at shouldering the weight of a much larger sense of history, effectively tying herself to Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny, and decades (if not centuries) of British folk music, no prefix necessary. For her creaturely third record, the greatest beast of all might be the album itself: This is a monstrous leap forward for Marling, whose roots are so deep she leaves no question that she’ll continue to flourish even if the movement that she propels starts to wither.

The Joni comparisons are more apt than ever, as are notices of an interest in American folk music more generally. Her last album, the very fine I Speak Because I Can, opened with a barnburner; there’s nothing quite like “Devil’s Spoke” here, which instead opens with a playful jig. “The Muse” unfolds with a jazzy flourish and her most Joni-ish vocal yet—delivering an opening line about God’s Word and its sovereignty, an early sign of heavy things to come—and builds, with banjo and fiddle, into a tempestuous sort of rain dance that invites love and inspiration to fall like a downpour. And it works.

Many of the songs are presented here as all-consuming flames; their intensity and purity of poetry are so hot and bright you expect the singer to be devoured, or else just collapse into ash. Others burn slowly. In the latter category is “My Friends,” not nearly as peaceful or settled as it sounds; it starts slow but its melody takes flight and soars through a tangled jungle of guitar and banjo. But it never falters; the song just keeps rising, and you think it’s going to come back down, at one point, but it doesn’t. “Night After Night” is even less convoluted, just the song standing naked, only Marling and her guitar; its lyric, adorned so simply, is the most chilling thing here: “Night after night, day after day/ Would you watch my body weaken, my mind drift away?”

Marling reteams with producer Ethan Johns here, who does some fine work, helping the singer anchor more of this material in rock and American folk idioms without severing any of those roots to the ghostly refrains of the British Isles. He provides a bed of warm winds and brass to “I Was Just a Card,” and he helps build “Sophia” from a folk song into a rock number, a tricky move that is pulled off more or less seamlessly. Most astonishing of all is “The Beast,” which culminates in raging slash-and-burn guitar; at first the production almost seems too genteel, but anything more unhinged would stick out like a sore thumb. Context makes it seem like the nastiest rocker imaginable.

That the songs sound so good, that they have such visceral appeal, is essential, because it underscores the fact that Marling writes very good songs, never better than the ones assembled here. She writes in arcane verbiage, in language tilted toward the folk music she so clearly reveres, but where that would be a stunt in the hands of a lesser writer, one forgets the stylized nature of the language here rather quickly, because the songs are simply so soulful and so stirring. They communicate their dark romanticism—songs of personal demons and failed love, written in failure but never cynicism—with great emotional clarity. The words themselves serve as scaffolding, not obstructions, and the sheer heaviness of the thing hits hard precisely because the songs resonate. The cover image, it seems to me, could summarize the record’s themes quite well—whether you want to interpret it as picture of good and evil colliding, or simply of sex.

It’s a wonderful album with sharp teeth and claws but a warm, beating heart; it entices you, captures you, and holds you spellbound. I suspect that Marling has even better records in her, actually, and hers is a talent that should age gracefully; regardless, Creature is tremendous, and a fine folk album by any standard.

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