Album Review: Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle
Nothing more needs to be said regarding Laura Marling’s maturity “beyond her years”. For just over half-a-decade, each project of hers has showcased her considerable evolution, in terms of both her lyrical nous and musical abilities. At the heart of it all has been Marling’s own fierce determination, which eclipses that of many other singer-songwriters working today. Her trajectory has demonstrated a clear, no-nonsense vision of herself as an artist, and now, these ambitions have brought her to Once I Was An Eagle: her fourth studio album, which could well prove to be the apex of her career.
At first, it is intimidating to consider that this album features little musical augmentation beyond vocals, guitars, dashes of percussion, the bass of Rex Horan, and Ruth de Turbeville’s cello arrangements. However, such a refined template makes the experience all the more intimate and captivating: Marling’s vocals have never sounded more direct, and her philosophies ring through with a newfound clarity as a result. There’s a direct honesty to songs such as You Know, whose sympathy for “mothers who do all they can / Just to take their faults out of the line” conveys a compassion which sounds thoroughly genuine.
Throughout her existing discography, Marling has already proved herself to be a master storyteller, but here, she also displays an extraordinary talent for weaving dramatic tableaus. Perhaps fittingly, the release of Once I Was An Eagle has coincided with the staging of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s As You Like It, the orchestration of which was helmed by Marling herself. With this in mind, it is interesting to consider that Once I Was An Eagle resembles a theatrical play as much as it does a traditional studio album. Indeed, it unfolds in a fluid suite of sound and sentiment, featuring an interlude, an opening medley, and a gently progressive musical canvas. Yet there is no light spectacular or crowning set-piece on offer here: instead, this is a murky, shadowy play of power, which goes on to radiate a cathartic warmth, if not a resounding resolution.
Once I Was An Eagle opens softly, but even from the delicate outset of Take The Night Off, there is an electricity permeating the fibres of this record. Although Marling’s vocals begin feather-light and sweetly melodic, there is a steeliness to her performance; one which gradually makes itself more apparent as Take The Night Off grows and grows, the curtain rising to expose strings, acoustic percussion, and ever-expanding washes of sound.
The first four songs flow from one to the next, composing a single, undulating passage, before everything becomes swept up in the biting, rollicking Master Hunter. The primal urgency of the latter’s sharp, snapping arrangements is matched by some deliciously dark snarls, as Marling dresses herself in war-paint with the refrain of “I cured my skin / Now nothing gets in.” This couplet epitomises (and also concludes) the independent tone of the album’s first ‘act’, which sees the narrator empowering herself as the predator in love’s game. Early on, Marling makes the firm assertion that “I will not be a victim of romance”, yet as her journey progresses, such self-confidence is eroded to the point where her outlook shifts to one of remorseful yearning. It’s this very flaw, this vulnerability belying Marling’s outwards assurance, that makes Once I Was An Eagle so disarming. No simple answers or conclusions are unearthed across the whole span of the record, with the balance of power constantly in flux.
Nestled at the album’s dark heart is the coupling of Little Love Caster and Devil’s Resting Place: two compositions which combine to form a deeply troubling centrepiece. The former utilises flamenco-like guitar motifs alongside oaken swells of cello, and the latter hurries along ominously, soon breaking into a warning that “water won’t clean you”. Both sound dangerous, despairing, and yet they exercise a steady restraint, with Devil’s Resting Place submerging Marling’s vocals beneath an understated flourish of keys. The pain is at its most pronounced here, with the poise of Master Hunter suddenly lost to a newfound sense of doubt and regret.
However, in the later stages of the record, warmth and light finally begin to shine through such calloused canopies. The spookily nimble Undine is followed by Where Can I Go?, which transforms Marling’s loneliness into a thing of exquisite beauty. “It’s a curse of mine to be sad at night” she sings softly, before the rousing instrumentation rallies around her as if in a moment of uplifting revelation.
The final passage of the album works just as beautifully as its organic opening. Not a note is wasted on the sumptuous jangle of When Were You Happy? (And How Long Has That Been), which fades away into the remarkably candid Love Be Brave. “Here comes a change over me” Marling muses; “something strange takes over me / I am brave and love is sweet / And silence speaks for him and me.” It builds perfectly towards the skewed closure of Saved These Words, in which Marling’s voice takes flight at last, with the help of a musical reprise from the album’s early moments. “You weren’t my curse,” she gasps in amazement. “Thank you, naiveté, for failing me again / He was my next verse.” Where such a notion leaves the narrator is left ambiguous, but for the purposes of the album, it’s a breathtaking conclusion indeed, merging the euphoric with the bittersweet in a fitting climax to a record of such tangled emotions.
Taken in its entirety, Once I Was An Eagle is Laura Marling‘s most accomplished work to date. Never once – even across its 63-minute timespan – does its hypnotic spell break, with its strengths stemming from its thematic and structural symmetries. More so than any of Marling’s other releases, Once I Was An Eagle must be listened to in its entirety to be fully appreciated, but miraculously, this undertaking is in no way a chore. Thanks to its crisp production and sparklingly memorable melodies, it sweeps the listener away into a rich, fulfilling world all of its own. It is of course true that Marling is not without her influences, many of whom can be heard via the scale and ambition of this release. But even though some of these nods are noticeable, they never once distract from what is essentially Marling’s own account on such time-honoured topics.
Having just pipped the halfway point, 2013 has already established itself as a golden year for music, and it has now delivered a fully-fledged masterpiece. As a marriage of blossoming musicianship, keen intellect and an assured theatricality, it is honestly hard to foresee the arrival of a more rewarding listening experience in the near future.
“You should be gone, beast / Be gone from me.”
Posted on July 2, 2013, in The Music World and tagged 10/10, Album Review, As You Like It, Ethan Johns, I Speak Because I Can, Laura Marling, Little Love Caster, Master Hunter, Once I Was An Eagle, Take The Night Off, Virgin Records, When Brave Bird Saved, Where Can I Go?. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.