Marling takes flight

Lewis Coenen-Rowe gives a full 5 stars to Laura Marling’s fourth LP

At the risk of compromising my hipster credentials, I did not like Laura Marling before it was cool to. My response to her early work was rather lukewarm, and it was not until her previous album, 2011’s A Creature I Don’t Know, that I started to pay real attention. Well, this album has made me a complete convert. I’m addicted.

LauraMarling album art

At once more expansive and more introverted than its predecessor, Once I was an Eagle luxuriates across 16 tracks but deploys a predominantly stripped-back, sparse instrumentation that allows Marling’s voice to dominate centre-stage, while providing subtle touches of sitar drones, cello, Hammond-organ and ambient effects. The result is that, even more so than her previous records, this album feels like a psychological journey with a hypnotic power to draw you in.

The opening four tracks are an apt demonstration of this quality, each flowing without pause into the next as Marling delves into the realms of the subconscious from the conversational opener, to the reminiscence of the title track (“when we were in love/ I, I was an eagle and you, you were a dove”) and into the confessional stylings of ‘You Know’.

The psyche Marling presents us with is however a fragmented one and tracks often seem to react against one and other so that the dominatrix persona of ‘Master Hunter’ meets its antithesis in the following vagaries of ‘Little Love Caster’. ‘Undine’ combines these by undermining the musings about naivety with a world-weary blues accompaniment. No song is without its unexpected twist, making the album a dense web of conflicting identities.

The poetic variety of the lyrics is more than matched by the variety of the musical accompaniment, and just as the lyrics feature recurring themes, so does the music: the transformation of the opening riff in the final track is one of the emotional highlights of the album. The music borrows from diverse influences. Much is often made of Laura’s own character in discussions of her music (words like ‘precocious’ come up far too often), and it is easy to hear this album as a confessional one, but I find that its real power comes through empathy. It’s difficult to listen to the music and not feel that the emotions expressed are indeed your own; the experiences, your experiences; the voice, your voice. Marling has this wonderful power to express the multiple through the singular.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the closing track. She has always done a good line in cathartic conclusions (listen to ‘Sophia’ or ‘I Speak Because I Can’), but this one is exceptional, concluding with a cry of ‘I saved these words for you!’ over a rising surge of sound. This is precisely the point: these words really do feel like ours. Once I Was An Eagle is a gift; and it is one to be treasured.