Laura Marling A Creature I Don't Know (4.5*)

Thursday, 2 July 2012

Taking a peek around the intertubes the way you do when you're listening to something impressive by someone you don't know a whole lot about I noticed there seems to be a degree of surprise about the quality of a third album coming from a twenty-one year old. It's not as if there's a law against relatively young singer-songwriters turning out quality product, so I suspect there's a bit of reverse ageism kicking in there. 

Young writers aren't, presumably, supposed to be this good, though I fail to see why that should be the case. Richard Thompson, I should remind the reader, wrote Meet on the Ledge at the ripe old age of seventeen, and over the years there have been plenty of classy writers and performers who’ve risen to prominence at a relatively young age.

Since I haven’t heard Alas, I Cannot Swim or I Speak Because I Can I can’t comment on development, but given Marling’s background (Mum’s a music teacher, Dad used to run a recording studio, she’s the youngest of three sisters and you’d assume that having learnt guitar at an early age) she’d be coming from a music-rich environment. Add the fact that she is an avid reader and you’ve got a background likely to produce something of substance provided there’s a bit of creative imagination lurking there as well.

Over the last few years of my teaching career the whole language approach to teaching literacy stressed the importance of providing a text-rich environment so that children are exposed to a large quantity of quality text and become literate almost by osmosis rather than through explicit instruction in the rules and conventions of literature. I had my doubts about this concept as a general principle but accepted in the right conditions it could deliver impressive results that you wouldn’t be able to achieve through other approaches.

Based on her family background and a few listens to A Creature I Don’t Know I suspect we’re looking at the musical equivalent of deep childhood immersion in quality content followed by a relocation to London at the ripe old age of 16 where immediate absorption into the acoustic, tradition-tinged new folk scene (Mumford & Sons and Noah & the Whale created a situation where there was plenty to explore for a kid who’d grown up in an environment where exploration and synthesis was probably encouraged.

For someone who never “got” Joni Mitchell, the fact that I got into the album more or less from the start of The Muse might come as a surprise, but there’s a certain arch charm, a wry sense of detachment to some of this stuff that doesn’t fit with recollections of Ms Mitchell stuff that had her filed under Nothing of interest here forty years ago. On the basis of A Creature I Don’t Know it might be time to re-dip the toe in the Mitchell oeuvre...

But back to The Muse, which shuffles along as Marling introduces The Beast, a recurring character representing one side to her personality, in an unsettling rambling narrative driven onwards by wire brush drums and a plunky banjo over a cello and double bass driven hook that delivers a tumbling, swirling ragtime shuffle..


© Ian Hughes 2012