With Laura Marling, there’s something in the water, it flows through her fourth album Once I Was An Eagle as it has done her previous work. The bodies of water keep getting wider; on her debut she couldn’t cross a river for a boy because “alas, I cannot swim” Here, she’s travelling over oceans.
The album itself is broken into three acts, the first clearly marked by four unbroken songs. Opener ‘Take The Night Off’ is a mellow start, less complex than A Creature I Don’t Know opener ‘The Muse’ but still finding Marling dwelling on the Beast that featured heavily on that 2011 album. The (near) title track explores the roles of eagle and dove in the relationship. Marling, with her family motto “We are no-one’s prey” tattooed on her wrist, sees herself as the eagle. She adds the qualifier “if we ever were” after “when we were in love”. Musically ‘I Was An Eagle’ is sparse like most of the record, mainly voice and guitar, though here a cello from Ruth De Turberville and a smattering of conga drums brings to mind Nick Drake’s ‘Cello Song'. By the end of the quartet of openers, Marling has given her former beau a nicotine and honey soaked kiss off in ‘You Know’ and taken some time out to literally ‘Breathe’ evoking a pause for breath after the torrent of words directed at us for the opening fifteen minutes.
On first single ‘Master Hunter’ she sounds very much like a young Bob Dylan delivering the line about putting a bullet in her brain in such a deliberately forceful manner. She’s full of confidence, spitting venom and like Dylan in the name-checked ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ warning off potential suitors. Here the song itself is part of the album’s middle section, in which Marling is searching for answers or coming to terms with the realisation that sometimes there are no answers. It’s an angry song, brought to life by the slamming of pots and pans as percussion. In this third of the album the Devil seems to be a constant presence, especially on ‘Devil’s Resting Place’ a ballad that could feature in The Wicker Man comfortably. Despite the tempestuousness of the record in these two parts, there are quieter moments like the brief two minute instrumental ‘Interlude’ and the near six minutes of flamenco flecked guitar on ‘Little Love Caster’.
Water is prominently mentioned in ‘Master Hunter’ perhaps an evocation of the revelatory visit Marling made to the Shasta Lake in her new home of California and while typically she uses its expanse as a meditation on the vastness of thought, here and on ‘Undine’ it is as a metaphor for purity and reclamation of naivety that Marling dwells on in the sense of the Ancient Greek water nymphs and wanting the scars of love to be washed clean.
Marling wonders 'what next?' amid a beautifully bruised Hammond organ trill on ‘Where Can I Go’ and pondering the irrational mind on the bluesy ‘Pray For Me’ one of the most infectious, uplifting melodies on the record. Sandwiched between though is ‘Once’ a song so simple and beautiful and yet with such a gloomy message that “once is enough to make you think twice / About laying your love out on the line.” It, if anything on here, is likely to be the song that will break America for her and garner the most earnest YouTube cover versions.
As the LP closes, things are moving on for Marling; she castigates herself in ‘When Were You Happy (And How Long Has That Been)’ with one exhausting line fitting 32 syllables in one breath and ending with some guitar licks that would sound at home on some of the tracks The Beatles returned from India with, specifically George Harrison’s ‘Not Guilty’ demo. The 12-string Byrdsian swagger towards the end of ‘Love Be Brave’ is one of the unexpected musical treats here, much slower than the version debuted at The Royal Albert Hall last year and all the better for it. The final denouncement on ‘Little Bird’ is that Marling has been ghosted by a bird throughout the record, there is a chirping of birdsong briefly before ‘I Was An Eagle’ much like that found on her first album. As the bird falls to her feet, accompanied by plaintive, sonorous almost prog-like guitars the process of fixing its wing becomes life-affirming as she sends it onwards. Finally, on ‘Saved These Words’ the cycle is complete, Marling is beginning a new relationship, allowing her naivety to get the better of her again. Her cured skin from ‘Master Hunter’ is now open and she is ready for her next verse.
The album cover features a glimpse of Marling’s naked shoulder, fitting for an album in which she seems less indirect in her subject matter, there are fewer songs where she seems to be acting as a conduit for the stories of characters that may or may not be her. It feels far more confessional than the preceding three albums. While different styles are employed on different songs there is a pastoral atmosphere as found on Led Zeppelin III and a quiet reflection like that of Bill Callahan’s work. As the record starts to spread its wings, more nuanced flourishes are used rather than raging, all-in, crescendos that typified the closing of songs when she has worked with producer Ethan Johns before.
Whilst it is the music of Laurel Canyon, California from forty plus years ago that is summoned when speaking of Marling, even more explicitly now she calls Los Angeles home, it is another singer-songwriter we are reminded of now; PJ Harvey. It’s now no longer reaching to put Laura Marling in such exalted company. It’s worth highlighting that like Marling her first two (eligible) records were nominated for a Mercury Prize and the third wasn’t. The fourth, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, won. There’s every chance it could happen again.