We expect singer-songwriters to envelop us in their troubles, to confess their every pain and allow our consoling ears total access to the deepest, darkest reaches of their psyches. Laura Marling, however, likes to keep her audience at arm’s length. To this point the English chanteuse has been defined by the dry eyes with which she views heartbreak and an intelligence that verges on prescience. Although there are notable developments on Marling’s musical front, fourth effort Once I Was an Eagle finds her distinctive voice intact.
The album is split in two by a broken record of an interlude. The first seven tracks feed into one another seamlessly without falling into monotony and find Marling expanding beyond the all-too-familiar confines of plaintive folk into a more vivid, almost flamenco style. The use of Spanish guitars is flamboyant and at odds with both Marling’s stoic temperament and the more traditional elements of her songwriting, but the contrast works very effectively. The opening stand of ‘Take the Night Off’ and ‘Once I Was an Eagle’ plays out particularly well and finds a bruised yet still rational Marling shooing away a scorned lover.
“I will not be a victim of romance”, the title track’s pungent refrain, is the mantra that holds Once I Was an Eagle together. Where so often heroes and heroines of pop culture will fall back into a doomed relationship on the promise of a deceptive spark, Marling dispels such uninformed notions, although there is a struggle. “Be gone, beast / Be gone from my mind at least”, she moans while scratching around her fret board. A cutting remark or two and this beast is slayed mere minutes later, for any sort of emotionally destructive or nostalgic impetus is indulged only fleetingly. She’s not adverse to idealising her past, however: “When we were in love, I was an eagle” she coos as guitars unexpectedly race on the title track. It’s a thrilling moment that many would want to cling on to, but Marling knows better.
‘Master Hunter’, ‘Little Love Caster’ and ‘Devil’s Resting Place’ round out the first half and number among the most active works in Marling’s canon to date, dredging up memories of Led Zeppelin’s acoustic moments on III and IV as well as Anna Calvi’s charred Earth melodrama. ‘Little Love Caster’ is a spacious haze of nimble fingerwork, its busy ambiance is subdued by a haunting croak in the distance, but Marling sings on, impervious. “Yes, I am a master / I had you, bad man” – the message remains: Marling will toy with her former paramour as long as she sees fit. The single ‘Master Hunter’ and ‘Devil’s Resting Place’ brim with easy power and hold a self-aggrandising edge that is not uncommon on Once I Was an Eagle. Marling’s proclamations of mastery and dominance are resolute and ever defiant.
The second half is less daring and a bit more forgettable as a result, but it is still a strong collection of folk songs. ‘Where Can I Go?’ could be a lost Dylan track from 1965 and ‘Undine’ is solid if only professional in its execution, but there are heady peaks among Eagle‘s closing eight, including ‘Pray for Me’, the multi-faceted ‘Little Bird’ and rousing closer ‘Saved These Words’.
An intense weariness permeates Marling’s delivery on ‘You Know’ and the precision with which she modulates her voice remains astonishing. She’s a theatre actress in constant monologue, always having to react to what is thrown at her by her unseen partner, and one is never unsure as to what she is trying to project. The insights we gain into Laura Marling are small and doled out miserly but fascinating all the same. This is an artist in utter control.