Laura Marling’s debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, could hardly have marked her out from the pack more emphatically had every copy had a giant ‘X’ burned into it. While her peers were into dramatic experi-pop, electro or vintage soul, Marling quietly but assuredly cleaved to her English folk roots. The songs demonstrated an almost unsettling maturity and distinctiveness of voice, considering they were written when she was only 17 years old. I Speak Because I Can, the 2010 follow-up, proved her to be the most serious of our singer-songwriter contenders.
It’s no surprise, then, that her third album confidently turns away from the expected, but without forced reinvention. Marling says the songs are ‘more rhythmically adventurous’ and that’s evident from the start in ‘The Muse’, with its jazzy cross-currents of piano, guitar, brushes and strings. It’s there too, in the line-dancing swing of ‘Sophia’ and the insistent ‘I Was Just a Card’, which features gentle horns and underlines the singer’s admiration of Joni Mitchell, KD Lang and Joan Wasser.
In places, it’s surprisingly fulsome for someone who made their name with bare-bones simplicity. ‘The Beast’ is its sensual centrepiece, an angrily throaty epic with a gathering storm of gnarly electric guitars and lyrics (‘You’re okay now, I suppose / You’re not pulled by the road’) sure to spark speculation about their subject. Greek folk is given an airing, by way of Leonard Cohen, in ‘Night After Night’, and Marling taps the Appalachian tradition without romanticism or reverence in the lustrous ‘Rest in the Bed’. An enthusiastic sea shanty is the exit – played if not by a creature we don’t know, then certainly one in intriguing metamorphosis.