Sometimes I review albums. Not to be published, particularly, but just for fun. Here’s one of them, a review of Laura Marling’s then-new fourth album, Once I Was An Eagle. Since I’ve put this online, I’ll try and do a follow up of her fifth, Short Movie, soon.
Several years ago I spent several hours in a Greenwich Village bar arguing with a friend of mine over the merits of albums being listened to as a piece. His opinion was that albums these days are pointless, music is consumed in bitesize chunks on iPods and smartphones, songs are zoomed through on shuffle and no one takes the time to sit and digest an album anymore. Therefore, he argued, why even both with things like overarching lyrical themes and a carefully selected tracklisting? Just dump a bunch of songs online and let people listen to them however they like.
He had a point, I admit, but it offended me on a fundamental level. To me, the best albums are meant to be listened to as a whole as much as possible. I can’t bring myself to listen to Blonde On Blonde out of order on shuffle or cherry pick a song or two from OK Computer, and yet I seem to hear very few albums these days that demand a close listen all the way through.
And so we come to Laura Marling’s fourth album, Once I Was An Eagle, which is very much one of those albums.
Marling burst on the nu-folk scene with her debut Alas, I Cannot Swim back in 2008. Since then contemporaries Mumford & Sons and Noah & The Whale have gone on to score mainstream crossover hits and sell shedloads of albums while Marling has remained largely in the background, prolifically releasing difficult, literary and extremely rewarding albums that show her astonishing growth as an artist. Each album has felt like a stratospheric leap forward and Once I Was An Eagle – her fourth album in five years – is no different. Listening to it you get the distinct feeling that you’re listening to the early work of a young woman who will one day be regarded as once of the greatest artists of her generation.
It’s worth keeping in mind that this is still her early work. It’s her fourth album at the tender age of 23 and given the rate as which she’s producing them it’s not hard to imagine her ending up with Dylan-like numbers in terms of albums.
Dylan is, in many ways, an apt comparison. Stomping lead single Master Hunter has a Led Zep-like repeating acoustic riff but it’s a young Dylan that springs to mind here, not least because of the lyrical wink to It Ain’t Me, Babe and her wonderfully drawn out pronunciation of the word “bullet”. He’s an obvious influence and touchstone for folk artists but there aren’t many on the scene who can wear his influence so boldly – and playfully – as Marling does and not sound like a pale imitation.
There are other classic influences at work too. The opening four tracks work as a medley, the doom-laden strumming and open tuning of the piece(s) recall Leonard Cohen’s work on Songs Of Love And Hate and Ravi Shankar’s ragas, with nods to Roy Harper and early Van Morrison. Playing spot the influence with Marling is easy enough – a Joni Mitchell vocal flight here, some Tim Buckley guitar work there, a bit of Joanna Newsom medievalism all over the place – but it’s a testament to the strength of her maturity and songwriting that she never comes off like a tribute act.
On Once I Was An Eagle, she never stays in one place long enough to be pigeonholed as an imitator of anyone anyway. “Take the night off,” she coos seductively on the opening track, a late night serenade of the same name, “and be bad for me”; but it’s not long before she’s railing against a relationship that distracted her, a “freewheeling troubador/You took my mind off the scene” and almost pitying the same person when she trills “when we were in love/If we were/I was an eagle/And you were a dove”. By the time Master Hunter storms in after the first suite of songs she’s proudly proclaiming “I cured my skin/Now nothing gets in/Nothing as hard as it tries”. On that song she sounds so sure of herself, so predatory, that it comes as a surprise that on Undine – an alt-country/bluegrass number on the record’s lighter and brighter second half – she’s pleading with the titular folklore character to “make me more naive”. Cynicism soon returns though and on the beautiful, organ led Once she makes her position clear: “Once, once is enough to break you/Once is enough to make you think twice/About laying your love out on the line”.
Both Undine and Once are on the album’s second half – coming after an instrumental cello-led interlude – in which tablas, cello and manic strumming make way the lighter, sunnier sounds of gentle finger picking and hammond organ. If the first half sounded like something Marling came up with after a weekend in a dark room listening to Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche on a loop, the second half sees her emerging blinking into the sunlight. Lyrical themes remain constant, but hope shines through. Love Be Brave, a slight tune equal parts Here Comes The Sun and Joni Mitchell, sees Marling sing the words “I am brave/And love is sweet” without a hint of irony. Quite a change from the woman who was earlier steeling herself with the words “I will not be a victim of romance”.
The album comes full circle with the final track Saved These Words which returns to the repeating riffs that anchored the opening four songs, as Marling remarks “love is not easy/Not always fun/Words are sleazy/My love is better done” and ends on a playfully self-referential note, perhaps aimed at the “freewheeling troubador” from before: “You weren’t my curse/But thank you naivety/For failing me again/He was my next verse!”.
It’s a light, maybe even hopeful ending to a lengthy, intense album full of brooding introspection. This album won’t spawn radio friendly hits and make her into a stadium filling star but you sense she’s not interested in that. Long after the popular mainstream nu-folk scene has been and gone, Marling will be making albums that demand attention, that are painstakingly crafted, and prove that the there’s life in the album as an art form yet.
Once I Was An Eagle is another astonishing leap forward for the artist in a career that has been full of them. I’m excited to see where she goes from here, and the good thing is we probably won’t have to wait too long to find out.