It’s hard to fathom that it’s been only four years since English folk musician Laura Marling appeared on the music scene. At the age of 18, Marling released her first album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, which was met with both overwhelming critical praise and an inability to talk about her music without taking into account just how young she was. Only two years later, Marling’s second album, I Speak Because I Can, elicited an amazingly stronger, near-universal reaction, even earning her comparisons to the likes of Joni Mitchell.
There’s no denying that Marling and nearly everything about her made for a great story, which is why A Creature I Don’t Know, her latest album, would have been interesting to listen to no matter what. But she has since shed the indie rock youthfulness of her debut and the predictable angst-tinged austerity of her sophomore effort. Creature sounds like the work of a decidedly mature artist, as if five albums, critical scrutiny, and all that modern adult life has to offer was somehow crammed in between it and her last album. Her past isn’t so much abandoned as subsumed: the strength of Creature rests in its ability to reconcile the energy of her debut album, albeit and perhaps unfortunately without the youthful spirit, and the growth of her second album, without sounding in the least bit labored.
Almost every song displays a patience, confidence, and maturity unmatched in any of her previous work. One shouldn’t be hard-pressed, then, to wonder why a song such as “The Muse” was chosen to open the album: it doesn’t sound like anything Marling’s done before. Reflected in the instrumental orchestration, Marling’s voice sounds so unaffected, so beyond her years that a wearing off can’t help but be expected with the following track, “I Was Just A Card.” But she seems to have a tendency to defy such realistic expectations, and she more than maintains a seeming effortlessness throughout. By the time the first minute of third track “Don’t Ask Me Why” is through, any reservations about her ability to keep up are put to rest.
Elsewhere on the album, “The Beast” trumps I Speak Because I Can’s darkest and most somber moments in tone, orchestration, and Marling’s own grown-up-sounding voice, which carries the song through to a hard-rocking climax. Seventh track “My Friends” is a beautiful and grand piece of folk music in which Marling sings “You’ll never know how I ached/ You will never know how I ached,” alternating between loud and quiet moments until it lifts off euphorically with drums and violins, only to fade abruptly. Marling closes with “All My Rage,” one of the album’s strongest, as if to let us know that she could easily keep going at this pace if she wanted. By this point, Marling outdoes all that she’s played and sung throughout the album; backed by riveting guitar strums, she adds a wearied but obstinate character to her womanly singing voice.
A Creature I Don’t Know only leaves us with the very same questions we’ve been asking after hearing her last two albums: How can someone so young sing and play at this level? And how long can she keep this up? After three extraordinary albums, she’s got to trip up somewhere, right? If it’s any indication, Marling’s latest shows that, at the very least, she isn’t going to let up on us — or herself — anytime soon.