Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know
At first, A Creature I Don't Know seems like Laura Marling's chilliest album to date. Gone is the earnest romanticism of Alas I Cannot Swim. Gone too is most of the unbridled passion and world-weary cynicism of I Speak Because I Can. The absence of these qualities may initially make the album appear to be less of an accomplishment than its predecessors, slight and strangely closed-off. Even the most bombastic songs - the darkly playful horn-infused "The Muse," the sinister and bluesy slow-building rocker "The Beast" - sound naked and blunt, simplistic in a way that even the most reserved, stripped-down moments on I Speak Because I Can were not. It's hard to pinpoint what exactly makes the album so initially impenetrable: is it the no-frills, organic production that perhaps sometimes falls a little too flat? Is it the more abstract, impersonal lyrics or the fact that Marling's voice remains, for the most part, on a low simmer? Though these slight changes may at first keep the listener distanced from the music, ultimately, it is also these changes that makes A Creature I Don't Know such a beautiful album. It is possible that the songs here will not immediately hit you emotionally, the way that I Speak Because I Can felt like such a punch to the gut; their simplicity and subtlety is instead more like a slowly-twisting knife - they root themselves inside of your brain, ever so slightly chipping away with every listen until, suddenly, they become some of the most tender, aching and genuinely affecting sounds you've ever heard. This time, the impact of Marling's voice is not in its volume or intensity but in the barely perceptible changes in inflection it can undergo in a single line and the impact of her lyrics is not in their barely-contained anger but in what lies beneath the surface of that anger. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the three-track run of "Salinas," "The Beast" and "Night After Night." Emotionally dizzying on all levels, it is actually in their quiet beginnings that they most shine - nothing is more heartbreaking than Marling's understated, slightly husky voice barely rising above a whisper with only a gently-strummed acoustic guitar for accompaniment. The way she utters certain lines, imbuing them with far deeper meaning than comes across simply in the words ("That gun will turn before the sun starts to burn, understand;" "He lies, he lies, so sweet that I choke;" "Dear lover forgiven, my love is driven by rage"), is stunning to say the least. "I Was Just a Card" and "Don't Ask Me Why" are less sprawling and adventurous musically but thanks to some lovely string arrangements and, again, Marling's impressive talent both vocally and lyrically, just as affecting. The lyrics in "Don't Ask Me Why," particularly, are downright poetic: "I took the wind from the sea/I took the blood from an arrow/I took the wisdom of spring/I was thrown and blown and tossed and turned until/Time found its hand and called it an end/Me and time, we go way back when/I was a child/And I always knew why." A Creature I Don't Know is not an album that wears its heart on its sleeve - but do not let that lead you to believe it does not have a heart at all. Marling only keeps growing better and she is also an artist who does not seem content to settle; her musical future is wide open.