Romantic betrayal wounds, but it can also inspire breathtaking songcraft. Just 21, Laura Marling has already released two preternaturally mature albums, but her third, the tear-stained tempest A Creature I Don’t Know, is her masterpiece. Tumbling from the fury-to-fortitude suite of ‘The Beast’, ‘Night After Night’ and ‘My Friends’ to the soaring, one-night-stand lament of ‘Sophia’, Marling has stepped into sunlight, stormy breakup behind her, clutching ten astonishing songs.
Reticent to reveal much of her personal life to prying journalists, Marling is, nevertheless, a candid lyricist. She has been unafraid of baring emotional travails like depression (‘Darkness Descends’) on her last album, I Speak Because I Can, and on her latest record, songs shudder with visceral dismay, disarray and ire after the crushing dissolution of a love affair. Although she’ll likely dodge inevitable queries regarding to whom that indignation is directed and refer to other triggers, like novelist Robertson Davies, it’s no secret that Marling’s long relationship with Mumford & Sons’ frontman Marcus Mumford collapsed late last year (he’s currently engaged to actress Carey Mulligan). The writing and recording of A Creature I Don’t Know took place in the months after that implosion, precluding another record that was originally set to be released as Marling’s third. And yes, for those keeping track of the heartache besieging London’s young, bright and gifted folk scene – and in a tangle of inescapable poetry – Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink, who produced Marling’s debut, expressed his own vivid pain over their romantic death in 2009’s beautiful The First Days of Spring. It’s rather poignant that Marling has done the same for another lover.
While A Creature I Don’t Know might have been born of Marling’s grief and recovery, it also shaped an illuminating path for her startling maturity as a songwriter, vocalist and arranger. Matched again with producer Ethan Johns, who understands her ferocious complexity, Marling’s stirring songs take flight, like ‘I Was Just A Card’, ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ and ‘Night After Night’, which she confides as a shipwrecked secret. Sparkling, unexpected arrangements abound, guiding spare whispers to raise-the-rafters, banjo-galloping folk-rockers, like ‘My Friends’ or the remarkable ‘Sophia’ – which unfurls like a contemporary ‘Suite Judy Blue Eyes’.
Since Marling first debuted as a teenaged, flaxen-haired, chain-smoking bundle of nerves, she has been dutifully compared to Joni Mitchell. With the magnificent A Creature I Don’t Know, this young artist finally vaults into a different, but equally confident, stratosphere as her mentor, assuring that generations of future songwriters will cite Marling as one of the reasons they first picked up a guitar.