Brit Award winning musician Laura Marling’s latest album sees her going beyond her nu-folk roots and taking on a looser, lustier and more sophisticated style. Louise Allan reports
Laura Marling has cast an intriguing figure since the release of her spellbinding debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim. Emerging like a dragonfly among the gamboling daddy longlegs of the London nu-folk scene, her precocious talent quickly spun a name for her among those those musicians brought together by a love of heartwarming melodies, traditional instruments and foot-stomping singalongs. Marling’s bambi-legged debut, released when she was barely 18, took all of those elements to darker, magical places. The gothic poetry of songs like ‘My Manic and I’ and ‘Night Terror’ was interlaced with the sticky, deadpan musings of ‘You’re No God’ and the charming un-romance of ‘Ghosts’. Despite its cobwebbed corners, it was ripe with imagination and filled with natty tunes which still floor me at every listen.
A well-documented relationship with collaborator Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink and several hairstyles later and Marling’s second album I Speak Because I Can was a knowing leap sideways. Earthier and more precise, it showcased Marling’s astonishing songwriting skill while capturing a burdened, self-conscious psyche. Described by Marling, poised on the brink of adulthood, as dealing with “the weight of womanhood, the greatness of it”, the lyrics explored love, loss and responsibility and were peppered with gritty images of human nature.
With her latest offering A Creature I Don’t Know, Marling proclaims she is still “looking for answers in unsavoury places”. From the velvety opening notes of ‘Muse’ it’s clear she has let something go since the tight-lipped second album. The music is looser, more sophisticated and theatrical; the lyrics are at once sensual and artful.
There’s heat in these songs. Marling’s voice and lyrics have taken on a lustier, Joni Mitchell-like quality, positioning her as part knowing raconteur, part predator. “I’m nothing but a beast/ And I call you when I need to feast,” she teases in ‘Muse’, laying out one of the central themes of the album. But while the music sounds more intimate, the poetry within it hurls her further from our grasp. Don’t get too comfortable, listener, it seems to warn, occasionally mocking and aloof with a Dylan-like lyrical playfulness. “Don’t ask me why and I’ll tell you no lies,” she shrugs, sounding too canny and worldly-wise for her 21 years.
Marling certainly doesn’t linger on the noise and detritus of modern life. Lyrically, the songs spin around classical references and primitive themes: sex, violence, womanhood and the beast within. It all hinges around a whirlwind of a centrepiece, ‘The Beast’, a curdling tune which sees our narrator giving in to the darkness within: “Tonight I choose the beast/Tonight he lies with me.”
‘Night after night’ is a classic, lilting lullabye to counteract ‘The Beast’, lingering on love and loss, asking: “Would you watch my body weaken and my mind drift away?” while ‘A Few Good Men’ picks up the pace, all salty, stripped-back lust: “You’re very tall, you’re very handsome, you’ve got it all, your skin smells of man.”
The glorious single ‘Sophia’ hits late in the album, summoning the goddess of power. It starts softly then lets rip into a full-blown country shakedown. It’s testament to the power of this album as a whole that this most familiar song always comes as a surprise. The album closes with ‘All my Rage,’ a danceable folky hoe-down in which Marling declares, “my love is driven by rage.”
Marling cloaks herself in imagery, maintaining her mysterious allure and swinging as far as possible from the traditional role of soul-baring singer-songwriter: a response to ex-beau Charlie Fink’s stark break-up album First Days of Spring, we are plainly not going to be hearing anytime soon. Like the best of her contemporaries, Marling’s songs don’t sound like they’re rooted in any specific time or place, leaving us constantly grappling for clues and reference points for the misty visions and emotional landscapes she evokes. Her presence is equally tricky to pin down and aptly summed up by the title of the album.
Cliché as it is, it’s a joy to see how Marling’s music has grown up with her. She recently said in an interview that these songs are more true to her than her previous work, as she put her stamp on them before any producers or collaborators got involved. Her confidence and enjoyment shine through and she shakes off her nu-folk shackles and soars to align herself more with other bloodthirsty, fearless females like PJ Harvey and Tori Amos.