Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

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For her fourth album, 23-year-old chanteuse Laura Marling releases her most expansive and ambitious work to date. Since her 2008 debut, critics and followers of the folk scene have branded Marling the next big thing, comparing her to songwriting giants like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Though each of her first three releases showcased her fine vocals and deft songcraft, in Once I Was an Eagle, Marling takes some of her biggest risks. It’s the kind of album that has a high probability of receiving Best New Artist honors from awards shows that don’t really care that four albums isn’t all that new.

Recorded in only 10 days, with the vocals all recorded in a single take, Once I Was an Eagle has the stripped-down sound of a coffeehouse performance. It is Marling’s vulnerable voice in confession, even if the story she’s telling is not her own. It is the raw emotion in her crooning, the fingers sliding across the fretboard, and the discordance of sparse hand drums creating unease as Marling weaves her tales.

The biggest risk of Once I Was an Eagle is the devotion it requires. These songs, though solid in their own right, can’t be fully appreciated on their own merits. In the era of single-song downloads and the iPod’s shuffle setting, it is an album that requires you sit and listen to 16 consecutive tracks to get the full story.

Once I Was an Eagle functions more as an opera than a collection of single songs. The tracks blend into one another and many songs purposely sound similar. On first listen, the album sounds needlessly repetitive, but full immersion in the story reveals the opposite: thematic and sonic reprises are used to propel the story and to marry narrative content with sound. Just as in theatre the story is told as much from the orchestra pit as from the script, here Marling’s compositions add depth to the stories told through her lyrics.

Folk singers like Marling are often called “storytellers” to the point that it has become a cliché, but if her previous releases were collections of short stories, Once I Was an Eagle is Marling’s debut novel. It is a concept album that tells the story of one woman’s journey through all of the beautiful, messy and heartbreaking aspects of love. The story begins with a deteriorating relationship; more specifically, listeners jump into the middle of a fight. “Be gone from me/Be gone from my mind, at least,” says a hurting Marling in “Take the Night Off.” The next three tracks are similarly aggressive, with the narrator questioning their feelings and hating what the relationship has become, even while resolving to turn her life around. “I will not be a victim of romance; I will not be a victim of circumstance,” she says defiantly, even if she doesn’t believe the words at the time.

Once the relationship ends, the protagonist is left numb. “Master Hunter” shows her keeping men at arm’s length by choice, unwilling to open up and having anything more than a passing fling. This continues until “Devil’s Resting Place” finds her loathing what she has become. The dark song closes out the album’s bleak first half, with an interlude segueing into a more optimistic and upbeat sound. As the protagonist begins to grasp acceptance, brooding guitars transition into flowing fingerpicking and warm organs.

It’s a long journey as the narrator learns to trust her feelings and herself again. “Pray For Me” finds her willing to give love another chance, though not trusting that she can (“I will not love/I want to be alone”). Eventually in “Love Be Brave,” she meets a man who for whom she feels love is worth the risk. “Here comes a change over me; something strange takes over me,” she says. Though not over her doubts, she finally gives in to the passions overcoming her. “I am brave and love is sweet/and silence speaks for him and me.”

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