Approaching an album with a mind free of tabloid headlines and twitter feeds has its advantages. The listener can conjure up vivid imagery from the melody and lyrics, rather than focusing on the musician’s after-hour escapades. Much like reading a novel before seeing the movie and predicting who will be cast in the lead roles, this approach taps into the listener’s creative mind in which he/she can find a more personal link to songs. It is with a clean slate that listeners should experience U.K. singer-songwriter Laura Marling’s fourth album Once I Was An Eagle.
This 16-song neo-folk album is busting at the seams with intimate details of Marling’s life– love gained and lost, anger, strength, survival, defiance, honesty, weakness, and all that falls between the cracks. Without seeing Marling’s face, one may overestimate her age based on the cumbersome weight that her songs carry. The reality is that at 23-years of age, Marling is an old soul trapped in the delicate, sinewy, ivory vessel that graces the album cover. She epitomizes the yin-yang—a soft exterior with a hardened heart—and balances the two extremes throughout the album with a veteran ease and poise.
Collectively, the tracks on Once I Was An Eagle can easily be the soundtrack for the next Wes Anderson film. In line with an Anderson film, this album is quirky and uncomfortable at moments—forcing pause and deeper thought. It is unapologetically uncluttered, which allows Marling’s soothing vocals to be the album’s epicenter. Her voice soars through an expansive range, as arrangements drift from quiet sliding fingers on guitar strings to crashing drum circle crescendos. Throughout the album, tones of folk masters Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan reveal themselves, though Marling succeeds in adding her unique sound to the earthy, outspoken genre.
Upon listening, the album’s first four songs translate as one long track, as if Marling just sat in the recording studio and folk-freestyled. In their continuity, these tracks set the stage for what is to come. On “I Was An Eagle” Marling assumes her predatory role, singing, “I will not be a victim of romance/I will not be a victim of circumstance.” “Breathe” gives listeners a glimpse into one or many of Marling’s past broken relationships with relatable lyrics like, “When you wake you’ll know I’m gone/Where I’m going there’s no one/So don’t follow me/Whatever you might hear or see.”
The predator goes for the kill on drum-heavy “Master Hunter” where Marling channels Fiona Apple’s feminist grit and makes it her own. The delicate, seductive Spanish guitar intro on “Little Love Caster” lulls listeners into a false sense of security as they are pulled into Marling’s praying mantis lair. On “Undine” Marling tips her hat to Nashville with some good old country picking and a love story, while “Where Can I Go?” borrows melody from Starland Vocal Band’s 70’s hit “Afternoon Delight.” “Once” unveils emotions that accompany the often grueling task of moving on from heartbreak, while “Little Bird” attempts to heal the broken spirit and soul. Each track feels tightly woven to the next, further strengthening the fabric of the story Marling shares with her listeners.
Once I Was An Eagle is such a stunning lyrical journey, that it still seems an unlikely product of such a young musician. Marling’s insight and openness fall in line with what folk music has portrayed for decades, yet she blurs the lines just enough for it to feel fresh and new. With this album, Marling is blunt and makes no excuses, and in that honesty she soars above the rest to perch and take in the view—even if just for a fleeting moment.