The first time you hear Laura Marling, it’s hard to believe how young she is. A folksinger/songwriter in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny, she has, at the age of 21, released three albums, each marked by a maturity, intelligence and careful craftsmanship that belie not just her youth, but also her generation. Listening to her songs, you’d be hard-pressed to prove they were written in the 21st century: none of the technological or pop culture signposts we take for granted put in appearances, and the work itself demands the kind of careful attention that our fractured, channel-surfing world has made almost obsolete.
It’s hard to say if her third album, the newly-released A Creature I Don’t Know, is her best yet. It can’t surprise us with her raw talent and stubborn idealism the way her debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, did. Nor does it jar us with the sonic surprises of her second album, I Speak Because I Can, which, like Creature, was produced by veteran Ethan Johns. But it’s safe to say her new album is another fascinating, furiously beautiful work that maintains her position as England’s reigning folk princess.
Having said all that, Creature opens with its most obvious, and its weakest, song, “The Muse”. Musically up-tempo, lyrically scatter-shot, it sounds more like modern pop music than anything Marling has done before, or hopefully will do again. She quickly regains her footing with the melancholy “I Was Just a Card” and the stately “Don’t Ask Me Why”, with its beautiful crescendo: “Those of us who are lost and low / We know how you feel / We know it’s not right but it’s real”. The Steinbeck-inspired “Salinas” follows, proving Marling can handle something more upbeat than a dirge without abandoning her gifts.
At this point, the album really hits its stride with a pair of tracks that are good enough to evoke Leonard Cohen without blushing. “The Beast” might be an answer song to Cohen’s “Avalanche”: “I suggest that you be grateful / That it’s your blood on my hands,” she tells her timid lover, before warning, “Put your eyes away / If you can’t bear to see / Your old lady / Lying down next to the beast”. “Night After Night”, which comes next, recalls both “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Ballad of the Absent Mare”. In the latter, Cohen sings of the lost lover/mare, “She longs to be lost / He longs for the same”, a sentiment Marling echoes and inverts: “He longs for the answers / As all of us must / He longs for the woman / Who will conquer his lust”. Her eerily calm voice has never sounded more beautiful.
Marling’s album reaches its highpoint with its next to last song, “Sophia”. Beginning with a nursery rhyme melody reminiscent of her debut album’s title track, it starts as another kiss-off to a discarded lover: “Who’s been touching my skin / Who have I been letting”, she tells him, “is no concern of yours”. But midway through, the song opens up both lyrically and musically into an ode to her own empowerment as she abandons the cool detachment that has marked so much of her work. Whether this is a preview of her next incarnation or just a brief respite remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say the answer will be worth seeing.