Album Review: Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

[Virgin; 2013]

The first real taste of Laura Marling’s new album came via a short film called When Brave Bird Saved, which allowed the listener to take in the first four songs of Once I Was Eagle. Those four songs – “Take The Night Off,” “I Was And Eagle,” “You Know,” and “Breathe” – are one, fusing together to create a medley. The transitions are as seamless as the dance moves in the film, and while some might say Marling’s guitar and voice are a touch too blocky and dry to be put to choreography (not in the same way as the likes of Max Richter or Sigur Rós), the focus is instead on the emotional process Marling character is going through. On Eagle we follow “a central figure, who angrily shuns naïvety and love, and over the course of the album regains a ‘”second naivety,’” and although Marling’s verses can be prickly and hard to dissect at times (as evidenced somewhat frustratingly on her previous album, A Creature I Don’t Know), the music and the dance work together in the film to display the tumultuous emotions the character goes through. Such is love; such is Marling’s music.

Eagle is an accomplished album, and if there ever was evidence needed that Marling has become a master of her trade, then she proves it here. The fifteen tracks here (one’s an interlude) have the same ingredients that the majority of Laura Marling tracks have – guitars and vocals – but here they are the true life and soul. Ethan Johns returns for production duties, and he too is at his best. Instead of tacking on instrumental flourishes and styles, here the additional instruments sound like they’re growing organically from Marling’s voice and guitar. There are a few instances where he ups the ante, but he does so appropriately: “Devil’s Resting Place” splashes into a darker world, submerging the track in a dark afterglow; the Hammond organ on “Where Can I Go?” and “Once” only glimpses at the idea of protruding into the mix, but instead keeps its distance and the pair of tracks feel like a charming ode to the sounds of American easy-listening country. He’s at his best both in both sides of the spectrum: on “Little Love Caster” the cello sounds genuinely sad and hollow while the whole melancholic mood is driven in with distant drums; “Master Hunter” keeps up the tension and attitude with clanking percussion while “Saved These Words” has a healthy dose of strings to drive it’s ambiguously optimistic tone home. Even the string-laden interlude is beautiful, capturing a particular sound that simultaneously makes it akin to a soundtrack from British film of the 40’s and something culled from Soap & Skin’s debut album.

As ever, though, this is Marling’s show, and her presence is as enamouring as ever. The story of the album goes that she recorded her parts in a single take, and the album retains this impressive feat. It can be heard in the lively rhythms and time signatures she chooses (Ethan Johns can often sound like he’s playing catch up with her), but most noticeably it can be heard in her voice. On Eagle it’s more casual and relaxed, like she knows what she wants to sing and how she wants to do so, but hasn’t decided to fuss over the exactitudes of it all. Consequently Marling does go from a deadpan monotone into a beautifully flickering higher range in a moment’s notice, but it keeps the listener on their feet. Getting the details of her performance is hard to pin down, but this is helped by repeated listens – something that is definitely required to appreciate Eagle fully.

Eagle is an hour in length, which is long by Marling’s standards, but it’s an album of two halves. Which side is better will vary across fans of Marling, but the first seven tracks are certainly the more instantly impressionable here, mainly due to the aforementioned four-track medley which begins the album which then leads onto the fiery “Master Hunter” and “Devil’s Resting Place,” putting the delicate “Little Love Caster” between them. It’s a strong run that works because each tracks seeps well into the next – a quality the second half of Eagle doesn’t boast quite as well. The latter eight songs work better as individual songs, but when taken altogether and with the rest of the album, the context can do them well. In terms of being critical, one or two tracks do feel like a bit of a dip in terms of engaging material, if not just slowing the pace down a bit too much, making getting to the end something of a drag. It’s odd: taking in the album as a whole is the way to do so if the best experience is to be gotten from it, but, as said, there’s the always a feeling that something could have been cut towards the end.

Across the two sides the tone changes, too. On the first half you’ve got the likes of “Devil’s Resting Place,” which is probably the darkest thing here, while across on the other side there’s the playful, duelling guitars of “Undine.” One good example of the contrast lies with “Little Love Castor” and “Little Bird”: both reach towards six minutes and consist mainly of gentle acoustic moments and delicate vocal melodies. They also both end on flourishes of strings and brass, but “Little Bird” sounds like it’s near enough taking flight into a summer’s sky whereas its counterpart stays in the same shadows it began in.

It’s easy to read most, if not all of Marling’s lyrics as autobiographical (I’ve been far too guilty of that myself in the past), but in terms of understanding and enjoying Eagle, it seems best to consider the words as those of the character mentioned at the start, who is going through life and experiencing love and all that it entails. Lines can be picked out, and they impact aplenty, such as “I think the more I think/ The harder it is for me to breathe” from “When Were You Happy?” but it’s not worth getting carried away with doing this. Sometimes enjoying the story is better than trying to fully understand it.

Eagle is definitely Marling’s most considered work, and most of that comes simply from the fact she’s stripped away a lot of the decoration, and yet ultimately it feels easy for her, if not a little predictable. Her guitar playing isn’t too fussy but still sounds detailed, and she keeps herself at a distance with her words (and the way she sings them, too); we’ve got a clearer picture of Marling but still it doesn’t feel like we know a great deal more about her from Eagle. This kind of doesn’t matter, though, as a Laura Marling song or album isn’t about painting in the details to the person – the details here make up whatever you want them too. Personal or created solely for a character, there’s no denying that Eagle is a great, if not brilliant, album that shows how good Marling is as a musician and a writer. And album like Eagle will only help her soar.