[Virgin / Ribbon Music; 2011]

It’s no secret that Laura Marling writes personal songs, the subject matter of which has moved from youthful endearment to world-weariness in what seemed like no time (like, multiple times during the runtime of an album, or even a song sometimes). Even if she was reeling off someone else’s tale of lost-love and/or despair she always kept herself firmly rooted at the bottom of her songs, often flourishing outwards in numerous directions, towards and into darker paths but with routes back to the unconstrained side never far from reach. Just look at the titles of her last three releases: My Manic & I, Alas, I Cannot Swim, I Speak Because I Can – all put her in the centre of the picture before you even begin listening.

And it would seem that her new album, A Creature I Don’t Know, continues this trend with an album title that hits the middle ground between the self-confessed modesty of Alas, I Cannot Swim and the sturdier and confident I Speak Because I Can. And the album has just as many in-between moments as before, going from seemingly fictional character’s shoes (a girl from “Salinas”) to the devastatingly personal (the conflicting disagreements of a past love on “Night After Night”). But there’s a brief moment where she seems to appeal directly to the listener and their plight of woe: “Those of us who are lost and low / I know how you feel / I know it’s not right but it’s real” she offers in an almost motherly fashion on “Don’t Ask Me Why.” It makes for a warming chorus and is the driving force behind the song, ahead of its shuffling crescendos, but it’s the way Marling seems to step not just out of the picture, but out from the frame itself and try to console all those aching souls that might listen to her music because they can relate. With a message like this she could well save a few nineteen year olds from going crazy and losing all their self-esteem.

But perhaps it’s not such a wide-ranging reassurance; Marling always seems to have troubled characters surrounding her, such as on “Ghosts,” “What He Wrote,” and “The Captain And the Hourglass,” so it’d be no surprise if in fact her sentiment was for another individual character from the song itself, or even for those girls from “Salinas.” But there’s also the fact that on this album her songs seem harder to dissect than ever, offering prickly stanzas full of wonderful lines that are hard to connect with the content around them. It’s not so much a widening of her songwriting ability but rather a deepening; delving further into finding out what it is that controls human actions. The same themes seem present – death, love, the ups and downs of relationships – but on Creature she explores the surrounding areas and we find her making almost casual remarks about temptation, deceit and religious beliefs, like they are all the norm in her world.

As mentioned above, though, she always seems to keep herself in the centre of it all. Even when she might be wandering casually into the persona of a character of her own creation, she takes on the role with such earnestness and confidence that nearly every “I” feels personal. And the tone which she adopts matches that; on the album she’s more conversational than ever. On opener “The Muse” she goes between wavering melodies and spoken word sections that sound almost tongue in cheek. The first few lines of really very wonderful lead single “Sophia” are sung in a way that sound as though she’s quite literally just wondering and pondering out loud as she wanders around the room with her guitar. These touches make for good listening, showing that Marling has increasing confidence in her lyrics, letting them just speak for themselves when need be.

Musically the album is another notch up from I Speak Because I Can. Producer Ethan Johns’ flourishes were careful and helpful last time, but at times it felt like they were just stuck on to give the songs that identifiable feature. On Creature the sound is a whole lot more natural but still allows Marling to explore. The big hitter of the album is the centrepiece “The Beast” where guitars – both acoustic and electric – build and snarl to a thrashing end. But the way the song is turned from its acoustic beginnings is like watching the transformation of a man into werewolf before your own eyes: strange but oddly corporeal. It often feels likes it’s portrayed in the video for “Sophia”; Marling starts playing on her own, seemingly alone to the viewer, but slowly her band – who were always there by her side – come into view. On “Rest In The Bed” the accompaniment carefully and gradually emerge but the best touch is when Marling sings, “The sirens come…” and behind her a choir appear, like she’s just summoned a goddess.

Trying to pin down Marling’s music to a single genre is hard, though, and ten more tracks here don’t make it easier. With her guitar in hand she would appear to make folk music but her lyrics bring a realistic grimness and whimsical humour to the picture. And when she has a band behind her she can go in multiple directions before a song is even done. “The Muse” combines banjo, violin, guitar and piano, making for a saloon-worthy Celtic ho-down, while “Sophia” transforms almost perfectly, building and building until the drums come in, making for country-rock song, complete with choir. “Sophia” is the prime example though, having everything come together seamlessly whereas tracks like “The Muse” and “All My Rage,” while enjoyable, can feel a little full on and brash, masking the nuance of Marling’s individual performance. Sometimes the moments can be fleeting, like the swirling crescendo of “My Friends” or the gentle brass at the beginning of “I Was Just A Card,” but they add variation through the album’s runtime.

Creature is strangely reminiscent of Bon Iver self-titled album from earlier this year. On the surface both records don’t seem to share too much lyrically or musically, but their arrival and presentation evoke similarities; both are confident albums from artists with strong records preceding them. With Creature Marling has delivered something that has her own personal sound throughout, but still manages to explore both lighter and darker territory. “The Beast” and “Night After Night” have Marling at her darkest, and perhaps even most personal, but on tracks like “Sophia” and closing track “All My Rage” she sounds hopeful and confident. On the last of those tracks she sings “All my rage been gone / I’d leave my rage to the sea and sun,” ending on another optimistic note, much like on I Speak. But much like I predicted last time, a brighter looking future for Marling may well involve an equal amount of darkness.