Although widely credited to have been written off the back of a failed love affair, this analysis does a great injustice to Laura Marling’s fourth studio album ‘Once I Was an Eagle’. Though love and heartbreak do feature strongly in many of the tracks, they are not defining features; hypocrisy, happiness and womanhood all surface in the 16-song album.
Produced by Ethan Johns (who has also worked with Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon and Rufus Wainwright), each song was allegedly recorded in one single take at a recording studios in Bath. The length of the album is testament to Marling’s growing rebelliousness; over an hour long, it is more than any of her previous albums. Having so many tracks is somewhat an implicit indication of Marling’s shift away from mainstream. Not surprising then, that she has since been compared with the likes of Joni Mitchell and PJ Harvey.
The first four tracks roll into one another, like a continuous song. ‘Take the night off’ gives a haunting introduction as Marling sings defiantly ‘I don’t care where you’ve gone beast, I care where you go’. In ‘I Was an Eagle’ she chants ‘I will not be a victim of romance/I will not be a victim of circumstance’. You get the impression that the quiet, often-awkward singer has put a lot of emotion and personal turmoil into the record. ‘Master Hunter’ – the first single to be released from the album – changes the melody into something more aggressive, harder. Marling asserts her voice ‘Tell me something I don’t know/…You’re not sad, you’re looking for the blues’.
The songs are not predictable. ‘Interlude’ is a two-minute instrumental piece, while in ‘Where Can I Go?’ and ‘Once’ an organ plays to the subset of acoustic guitar. As time progresses, however, it is difficult to decide what the underlying message of the album is. Defiance? Pursuit of happiness? Despite spending the first half of the album venting anger at love and foolishness, in ‘Love Be Brave’ Marling shows hope, ‘how did I sleep at night, with you far from my sight?’ In ‘Little Bird’ there is the suggestion somewhat that Marling places her happiness not in transient romance, but in the concrete foundation of friendship. ‘Rosie only tries’, she sings. ‘Little bird if I only knew, maybe I’d be more like you/ With a feather in my wing. Is it spring?’ There is no conclusion, it seems; just a sense of mutual self-discovery.
Off the back of the album, critical reviews in both Europe and the US have been widely positive, drawing further comparisons also with Bob Dylan and the English songwriter, Sandy Denny. That may be so – the album is definitely more aligned with spoken word musicians – but what is clear is that the 23-year old Marling, who recently relocated to Los Angeles, is likely to have plenty more to say in the future. Based upon this album, that can only be a good thing.