Laura Marling, Westminster Methodist Central Hall, London

A Dylanesque troubadour who's knocking on heaven's door

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The Independent Culture

Catching Laura Marling at festivals over the last few years, I've found the reverence she regularly attracts hard to fathom. Her music has seemed dry and austere, her charisma underwhelming.

But with her third acclaimed album, A Creature I Don't Know, the 21-year-old is building a body of work, and her current church tour is at least placing it in evocative settings. It's been 25 years since I set foot in London's main Methodist hall, and its opulent grandeur is extraordinary. The music of Marling, a tiny blonde figure in a red jumper in front of the massive church organ, sometimes matches it.

The group of young friends on London's acoustic club scene that included Mumford & Sons, Noah and the Whale and Marling have become unexpectedly all-conquering recently, but calling them "folk", nu-, alt., or otherwise, stretches the terms till it's meaningless. Most are just bland singer-songwriters, acoustic guitars their only troubadour connection. Marling is different. Her lyrics' allusive rhymes attempt to conjure the transformative states and supernatural wonder that Bob Dylan heard in the British Isles' ancient songbook. Maybe Marling's Hampshire roots placed her just far enough south-west to catch some Celtic mystique. More likely, she dug deeper into her parents' record collection than her friends, and had enough lively intelligence to make what she found her own.

There is certainly a Dylanesque hitch in her voice during "Night After Night", which otherwise woozily circles like late-night Leonard Cohen. It's one of several songs that treat love as violent, fatal ecstasy, Marling's narrator alternately temptress or tempted, bodies merging and sex a sort of magic. She steps away from her band to take it solo. But she needs the colour their strings and drums bring, and their soft harmonies, too, on the initially solo "I Speak Because I Can". During "Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)", Marling mutters darkly (another Dylan trick, to draw the listener in), and describes an enduring, rustic nation. When I saw her earlier this summer, what she played was pretty much country-rock, but English traditions are audible here. "All My Rage" is a stormy conclusion. I still don't hear the greatness some have, and Marling's modesty on stage suggests she doesn't either. But she's learning.

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