Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle
The return of Laura Marling has come with little fanfare. The release of her fourth album Once I Was An Eagle comes to us as is, no fancy deluxe version (both CD and vinyl contain a very generous 16 tracks), no impending promotional tour, few interviews and that's about it. Holed up in LA Marling, it would seem, is keeping it all low key. Dispensing with her band, with just stalwart producer Ethan Johns filling in, she has contrarily crafted her most confessional and personal collection to date.
Throughout her three previous albums Marling has been carefully honing her talent with a steadiness that suggests she knew her youth might count against her over the longer term. Some of that early work (written when she was just 15) might sound naive now, but it is a formula that has stood her well. With each new recording she pushed the boundaries a little further yet never ventured out beyond her depth. Now with Once I Was An Eagle she stands before us with perhaps her most mature work: beautiful, subtle and more musically reserved than 2011's A Creature I Don't Know. Whereas that album was a shout, Once I Was... is a whisper, yet one that echos around the room.
What may be missing are the stand-out tracks of those earlier albums: 'My Manic And I', 'Devil's Spoke', 'Rambling Man', perfectly constructed, self-contained gems that called out for audience participation. As with A Creature I Don't Know, album four is a cohesive whole, the songs merging seamlessly into one another with Marling in the role of both victim and heartbreaker. Love has always played a contradictory role in her songs, the lover both feared and adored, sometimes at the same time: "I will not be the victim of romance / I will not be a victim of circumstance" she sings in 'I Was An Eagle' with a toss of her head and a furious strumming guitar. Here she is a woman who has outgrown her love, ready to move on and reclaim her independence. 'Breathe' sees Marling confronting an ex, valiantly trying to keep her cool, yet you feel the pain and anger bubbling under the surface. When she sings "Just breathe" you get the feeling she is speaking to herself. In the powerful 'Master Hunter' Marling is still up for a fight, taking off where 'Breathe' left off. "You want a woman cause you wanna be saved / Well, I'll tell you that I got a little lot on my plate / If you want a woman who will follow your name / It ain't me babe."
While 'Master Hunter' is the most direct of all the tracks, elsewhere Marling seems pensive, her internal dialogue on the delicate 'Little Love Caster' and the Celtic-infused 'Devil's Resting Place' almost drowned-out by a flurry of accordion and percussion. In 'Undine' a desperate Marling visits a water sprite in order to recapture some of the innocence she has lost: 'I was told that if you saw her she would make you more naive / Made my steps towards the shore / She sang her love at me." It seems to have done the trick as the second half of the album sees the prickly Marling ready to trust again. She may be apprehensive about opening her heart, yet she is still brave enough to do so.
The fiercely independent Marling may have lost the fight to keep her heart to herself but not without a sort of wry self-recrimination: "Thank you naivety for failing me again" she sings in lovely final track 'Saved These Words'. Powerful, beautiful and immensely satisfying, Once I Was An Eagle is yet another crowning achievement in this young woman's remarkable career to date.