If a picture is worth a thousand words, the cover art on Laura Marling’s latest effort Once I Was an Eagle is an epic poem in itself. A bare-backed Marling reaching for the sky as high as she can—it brilliantly tells the story of this record. Having already made such a name for herself by age 23 as a remarkably mature singer-songwriter, Marling could have just coasted with this album and no one would have thought any the worse. Instead, she has stretched out yet again, much farther than anyone thought she could. The result is an album that is nothing short of amazing.
Not to belabor the point on the album art—the real treasure is the music, and we’ll get to that—but I find it telling also in that Marling seems to be making a concerted effort to separate herself from the collective pack of her British nu-folk peers such as Noah and the Whale and the now wildly-popular Mumford & Sons—not just in creating a vibe that sounds nothing like her peers (nary a banjo to be found anywhere), but even in relocating from London to L.A. earlier this year. In so doing, with this record, not only has she carved out a musical niche, but if this were a competition, Laura Marling just pulled out far ahead of the pack.
Seriously, I’m looking for more superlatives here. The entire content of Once I Was an Eagle comprises an artistic statement that people twice Marling’s age could only hope to achieve. The album can easily be divided into two halves, and the first half is the part that is bound to draw the most attention by far. The first five tracks—over sixteen minutes—are a song cycle with no stops, woven together seamlessly by an eastern-influenced drone feel as Marling explores a range of emotions and reflections on the dynamics of relationship. The cycle builds to a powerful finish with the cut that doubles as the album’s lead single “Master Hunter,” its change-up in rhythm and chord structure after four droning tracks adding to the excitement and anticipation as Marling reaches a calloused lyrical conclusion from her laments about love: “I am a master hunter / I cured my skin, now nothing gets in /Nothing, not as hard as it tries.” With this cut, Marling also seems to be aligning herself musically with the likes of Bob Dylan, both vocally and lyrically, even tipping her hat by borrowing from him: “It ain’t me, babe, no, no, no, it ain’t me, babe.” This is by far the most powerful moment on the record for me.
The following two tracks also play like a mini-song cycle, sharing a minor-key structure as Marling explores deeper, self-deprecating emotions on “Little Love Caster” and “Devil’s Resting Place.” An esoteric string-laden instrumental interlude marks the end of “half one”, and the tracks that follow feel like taking a few long breaths after a very intense emotional experience.
Lyrically, Marling has never been better, nor more poetic, than she is on this record. From the opening lines, you feel the inner turmoil setting up: “You should begone from me beast / Begone from me / Begone from my mind at least.” Likewise, when she delves into the disillusion following passion: “When we were in love, I was an eagle and you were a dove / Today I will feel something other than regret / Pass me a glass and a half-smoked cigarette / I’ve damn near got no dignity left.” This kind of artistry is sprinkled throughout the album; it’s the creative kind of lyricism that makes songwriters wish they’d thought of it first. I speak from experience; I felt this over and over again.
With every step forward that Laura Marling takes, she seems to inspire more awe as an artist, leaving us to wonder how there could possibly be more where that came from. My only concern, be it slight, is that somehow she could be capable of “peaking” too young. Those concerns aside—for now, we have Once I Was an Eagle to love and enjoy. I have a hard time imagining that this album won’t make it near the top of many a Best-of 2013 list. It certainly will be on mine.