By Rob O’Donnell
I’m going to preface this review by saying that for the past week, I’ve been listening to older Against Me! songs almost exclusively. For those of you who don’t know Against Me!, they’re a hardcore punk band. So I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that I grimaced when I heard the opening chords of Laura Marling’s “A Creature I Don’t Know.” But it wasn’t my radical change of genres that was shocking; it was hers.
Marling is the main reason that many of you are listening to Mumford & Sons. At just 20 years old, she was the driving force behind the folk revival and took them on tour with her. After introducing them to her large fan base, she let them play on her second album, which was a commercial and critical success.
To describe Marling as “wise beyond her years” does not do full justice to the word “wise.” It took me a few months to learn that she was only 21 on her second album, and another few to believe it. The music on her albums was so mature and confident that it seemed to come from a veteran soul. Her guitar playing is exceptional and original, but her vocals coaxed joy out of the dark lyrics. Her voice is like Norah Jones’: seductive but mature, smooth but emotionally strong, elegant but untamed.
What appealed to me most in her first two albums was that her voice was the only thing that could be compared to Norah Jones. I’m a fan of Jones, but her music is very pop and bland at times. Marling is an incredible folk guitarist, with catchy but haunting melodies. It was traditional music but with beautiful vocals, a rarity in folk. She was not Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger; her vocals did not come with a disclaimer like theirs.
This album definitely marks a shift for Marling, but hopefully not a permanent one. It could actually pass as a Norah Jones album, if not for the occasional banjo. The opening song, “The Muse,” is a strange combination of pop, jazz and folk, with the latter being present only in the lyrics. Her lyrics are fortunately unchanged: dark, brooding and heart-breakingly sincere. But the rest seems too polished and generic to be truly called folk music.
With all that said, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. This is still a really gratifying album and I’ll definitely be playing songs like “Night After Night” and “My Friends” on my radio show. If you’re a fan of Norah Jones, Adele or Tegan and Sara, this album is absolutely perfect. It’s just a huge shift from her first two albums of hardcore folk into a much more mainstream genre. But maybe all change isn’t bad.