At the age of just 23, Laura Marling has unleashed her fourth (yes, fourth) album upon the world. And it is her most ambitious, mature and most powerful work yet, a record which I have spent the last week listening to and slowly absorbing while coming to realise that this is one of the best albums of the year.
The first thing I noticed about Once I Was An Eagle was its length – at 16 tracks and 63 minutes, it is substantially longer than her previous work, which filled me with concern. Then I noticed that in the middle of the album was an interlude track, which I found rather curious. Then I figured I should stop looking at the cover and just put it on already, and I must say I wasn’t quite ready for what I heard (but this is a good thing).
The album has a strong narrative running through it, of a character who in the first half of the album shuns love and speaks of the naivety that comes with such feelings (and it is clear that this character is coming out of a poisonous relationship which fuels her anger), but who by the second half suddenly yearns for this vulnerable state of opening up to someone else again. The music works well with the lyrics – the first half is dark and melancholy, with the sad sound of a cello (which combined with her voice reminds me a lot of Nick Drake) on most songs, a strong eastern sound, and blues riffs very reminiscent of the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin, but the second half is more upbeat, with a sense of hopefulness stemming from the ascending strumming of the guitar. What is really impressive is that she recorded all the vocals and guitars live in single takes, which is incredible when you listen to how fiery her performances are throughout this piece.
To see what I mean about some of the sounds that come through in the first half of the album, listen to this first single off the album, the song “Master Hunter”:
The lyrics are both deeply intelligent and utterly fascinating, and I probably should never have listened to this album in the car as I found myself trying to decode the imagery in the songs. She constantly refers to the devil throughout the album, particularly in the first half as she tries to suggest emotional isolation, a sense of toughening oneself up against such feelings. She speaks of hunters and hunted, of making love both a predator and a saviour. By the final song, “Saved These Words”, she finds a balance between the two sides of the album, by suggesting that love with due caution is the way to go, and the music matches this perfectly as it reaches a fusion of the darker first half and lighter second half, and ends the whole thing on a slow-building and almost triumphant note.
I refused to read any reviews or look at what any critics had to say about this album until I started to write this review, as I wanted to build up my own opinion free from the thoughts of others, but I have found that the critical reception to this album has been much the same as my own – overwhelmingly positive. Most critics love it, and even those who don’t like it as much are admitting it is a very clever work of art. This was a very daring move by Laura Marling, but she’s pulled it off amazingly and deserves full recognition for her incredible talent and creativity. If you don’t listen to this album, you are missing out on one of the most intelligent pieces of music that will be released this year.
I’m finishing this review off with the short film, “When Brave Bird Saved”, that goes with the four-song suite that opens the album, including the songs “Take The Night Off”, “I Was An Eagle”, “You Know” and “Breathe”. I would love to hear people’s thoughts of the film, the songs I’ve linked to, and the whole album for those who have heard it!