Every once in a while, a song grabs you, takes you by the hand and leads you somewhere new. Back in 2008, the song ‘Night Terror’ by Laura Marling did just that for me. Claustrophobic and dark, and unlike anything else on daytime radio (it was the year of apple-bottom jeans, boots with the furrrrrr, Chris Brown pretending to be romantic, Basshunter and other such nonsense) I was hooked. Laura Marling’s Alas I Cannot Swim and her subsequent albums, I Speak Because I Can and A Creature I Don’t Know, became my personal soundtrack for the rest of college.
Hard to believe then, that Marling is not even 24. This ’90s baby writes songs of world-weary maturity that seems to astound her reviewers with every album. And she’s prolific too; Once I Was An Eagle is her fourth album.
At sixteen tracks, it’s the longest Marling album to date. The album opens with what is an essentially a five-track mega-song. Marling has experimented with this in the past, notably with ‘Salinas’ and ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ in 2011’s A Creature I Don’t Know, but this is the most ambitious feat she has attempted so far.
She pulls it off as well, building five distinct tunes around a handful of chords. ‘I Was An Eagle’ is probably the most arresting of these, as Marling tells us ‘I will not be a victim of romance’. Always a rather cynical observer of the human heart, here Marling has outdone herself. In her clear tones, she tells her former paramour “When we were in love, I was an eagle and you were a dove”. And we all know what eagles do to doves.
Marling’s lyrics have always been centred on disintegration, whether it be of love, the mind, or something else entirely. ‘You Know’ opens with the startling lines “Damn all those people who don’t lose control, who will never take a foot out life”. She’s in bullish form, wrapping angry words in sweet flamenco-style guitar and ascending scales and arpeggios. The single ‘Master Hunter’ is one of her liveliest to date, continuing the delicious folk singalong style of previous songs, ‘Devil’s Spoke’ and ‘All My Rage’. It could also be considered a nice little dig at those who call Marling derivative, recycling the ideas of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Marling sings “It ain’t me babe” to the man who thinks he can tame her, just like Dylan told a clingy woman long ago.
The pace slows considerably with the bewitching ‘Little Love Caster’, a slow and seductive folk song, again on the theme of freedom and rejecting relationships. The influence of Americana and world music which first appeared in A Creature I Don’t Know is explored richly throughout Once I Was An Eagle, especially in tracks like ‘Devil’s Resting Place’. Marling now lives in LA and gone are the snow and rain of earlier albums, replaced with wide open skies.
After the ‘Interlude’, a dreamy piece of old-style movie soundtrack which clocks in at a far-too long two minutes, the album’s pace slows dramatically. There’s nothing as dramatic or as ambitious as the opening five tracks, but rather the jaunty folk-ballad ‘Undine’ (she’s a mermaid). The lovely ‘Where Can I Go’ evokes a sense of freedom and possibility, and is oh-so American with its jazz organ. It’s clear that Marling has moved on from just guitar. Always a fan of sound effects and audio tricks, she experiments with a wider range of styles and genres throughout the album. ‘Once’ sounds almost R’n’B like, and the sounds of west coast cool jazz is evident in the sprawling and epic ‘Little Bird’. The album closes with the folksy ‘Saved These Words’.
The most important instrument throughout the album is of course, Marling’s voice. Always crystal clear, sometimes tender, sometimes bitter, she elevates her music above the norm. Once I Was An Eagle shows an artist who has set herself a challenge and meets it admirably.
*Lead image via Wikimedia Commons
The Daily Shift’s Roisin Peddle reviews Laura Marling’s new album Once I Was An Eagle…
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