Album review: Laura Marling - Once I Was an Eagle

Laura Marling. Picture: Contributed
Laura Marling. Picture: Contributed
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THESE are bountiful times for the female songwriters and performers who have come to dominate the pop landscape, every success story providing encouragement and opportunities for those who come next. But such a talent as Laura Marling would have made her mark over the past five years regardless of the musical climate.

Laura Marling - Once I Was an Eagle

Rough Trade, £14.99

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She may have run initially with the London nu-folk set, including some guys you might have heard of called Mumford & Sons, but she outstripped her peers for sagacity and sophistication from her earliest musical utterances, demonstrating that she had more in common with Kate Bush and PJ Harvey, artists who arrived as precocious talents with a singular musical vision then shape-shifted from album to album.

Marling has not been as musically transformative (yet), though she does often sing as a character and modulates her voice a little in terms phrasing rather than register. Her instrument of choice remains the acoustic guitar which she picks deftly as much as strums fluently but, over the years, she has added fuller band arrangements. Her fourth album is a departure from previous releases in as much as it is basically a solo effort, and a substantial one at that, running to over an hour in length, yet recorded live in the studio over ten days with her regular producer Ethan Johns at the controls, and the drumkit.

It is not just the bare intimacy of the recording which gives Once I Was An Eagle its immediacy. In dealing with relationship troubles head-on rather than through the eyes of a character or with the impressionistic imagery she used on I Speak Because I Can, Marling appears to have produced her most personal, relatable collection yet.

Only Marling can say quite how personal that is but she has spoken about seeking to inject more honesty into her songwriting. She appears – metaphor ahoy – naked on the album sleeve and when she refers to a “freewheeling troubadour” in her lyrics … well, you can take your pick between ex-boyfriends including both Marcus Mumford and Noah & the Whale frontman Charlie Fink.

Fink wrote an entire mopey album, The First Days Of Spring, about his break-up with Marling but you can’t imagine Marling returning the gesture in this mood: “didn’t ask you to save me…wouldn’t ask you even to behave for me” she declares with a defiance which characterises much of the album. From the opening moments she is exorcising her ghosts – “you should be gone beast, be gone from me” – with a low-key, conversational delivery which is deceptively steely.

The first five songs – Take The Night Off, I Was An Eagle, You Know, Breathe and Master Hunter – are dispatched as a suite using the same guitar chords and running through similar resolute sentiments – from “I will not be a victim of romance” through “today I will feel something other than regret” to the strong imagery of “I’ve cured my skin so nothing gets in” – with marginal shifts in musical shading, including ragga arrangements and sparse piano, plus chiming percussion and martial drum rolls from Johns and tumultuous cello from Ruth De Turberville.

The music and tone becomes more rhythmic, insistent and even playful as she steals Bob Dylan’s phrasing and his lyrics (“it ain’t me babe”) with sass before drawing up after 20 minutes with a flourish.

But having girded herself with such relish, it is not long before that fire in her belly dissipates and she becomes pliant and wistful. “I would take you home and then I would be your ghost,” she croons on Little Love Caster, elongating her vocal phrasing to stretch over her undulating classical Spanish guitar playing, then following this with the tremulous, halting strings of the instrumental interlude that bisects the album.

Over on the other side Undine is part sprightly bluegrass number, part English folk song and feels like a hangover from a previous album for the way it delves back into mythological imagery. But when Marling asks next Where 
Can I Go?, it appears that she has already settled in Laurel Canyon, circa 1970. 
The gentle country folk sound of the rest of the album, suffused with a halo of Hammond organ, is redolent of 
Neil Young or Joni Mitchell in their prime.

From her new vantage point, she weighs up her experiences on Once (“once is enough to make you think twice about laying your love out on the line”) and sizes up her “new friend across the sea” on When Were You Happy (And How Long Has That Been). The news that Marling has relocated to LA for real suggests that relationship cycle might have cranked into gear once again.

She sounds exultant as she signs off Saved These Words with the lines “you weren’t my curse, thank you naivety for failing me again, he was my next verse”. Wherever that liaison takes her next, may it bring forth more music as assured as this.