Recorded with much-admired producer Ethan Johns, Laura Marling releases her fourth album in six years ‘Once I Was an Eagle’ on 27 May via Virgin Records. Always extremely productive, this album sees Laura provide 16 new songs for her loyal following and also features prominent use of cello, played by her lifelong friend Ruth du Turberville. After gaining many awards nominations and even more plaudits since her debut ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, will this album see the introverted 23-year-old soar higher than ever before?
The first four tracks on the album seamlessly segue into one another and it’s almost like Laura has decided to treat her fans to a bonus concept EP, even though the album as a whole is a very cohesive and flowing piece. ‘Take the Night Off’ is a sparse and low-key opener, focusing all the attention on Laura’s voice, which is now more confident and powerful than ever before. The hands-on percussion coasts underneath and there is a real independent spirit that continues through title track ‘I Was an Eagle’. Showing her world-weariness, Laura sings: ‘Pass me a glass and a half-smoked cigarette’ and with a touch of wisdom that: ‘I was an eagle and you were a dove’. It’s an old-fashioned folk song that is perfected by such a dazzling voice.
With a husky tone, there’s a semblance of aggression in ‘You Know’, a song that recalls Rilo Kiley at their most alluring. Laura sings about ‘freewheeling troubadours’ and, in a running theme of the album, how we used to be children. These visceral lyrics continue on ‘Breathe’, a song where she forcefully states: ‘How cruel you were to me, how cruel time can be’ and then daringly sings about fists being put against the wall and books burning before finally stating, with some attitude: ‘Don’t follow me, whatever you may hear or see’.
After this incendiary opening, the record veers into more familiar Laura Marling territory with both ‘Master Hunter’ and ‘Little Love Caster’ being classic-sounding folk ballads with heavy blues influences. When the full band comes in on the former, it provides a weighty dynamic, while the guitar work is very much at the forefront of the latter, which is beguiling and haunting with its lyrics: ‘I will be your ghost’ and ‘I’m not your tiny dancer’. An interlude marks the centre of the album and there appears to be a slight change in tone on the melodic ‘Undine’, although the subject matter is decidedly macabre: ‘I’m dying, sing your love to me’. This song asks: ‘What’s going on in there? Let me in’ while the rhetorical questions continue in the title of the brooding ‘When Were You Happy? (And How Long Has That Been?)’.
Laura is definitely reflecting and contemplating on a number of the songs , including ‘Once’ (no, it’s not a cover of the song from the film with the guy from The Frames…). Just Laura with guitar to start, it’s a thought-provoking song that captures the spirit of her contemporaries, especially in the way she is subtly joined by whirling keyboard effects. There’s also a stirring introduction on ‘Little Bird’, a song that gives the listener an insight into Laura’s mind, revealing a number of insecurities: ‘Silence speaks for him and me’.
The subtle closer ‘Saved These Words’ has a very powerful message about the importance of life and love in today’s society: ‘When you’re ready, to my arms come, Love’s not easy, not always fun’. As ever, Laura is wise beyond her ears. With its lengthy running time, this is a record that deserves your devoted attention and is best listened to away from distractions. Entirely absorbing and shrewdly powerful, ‘Once I Was an Eagle’ yet again showcases Laura Marling’s exquisite talent and shows that she’s a songwriter we should be proud of.