Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle (Virgin Records)
May 27, 2013
Five years is a long time in music, and it barely seems like a day has passed since a quietly confident teenager, wise beyond her years, was opening up her heart with 'Ghosts' and conjuring up stark, brutal heartbreak on 'Night Terror'. Half a decade and a lot of touring - and one suspects more heartbreak - later, and Laura Marling continues to exceed expectations. Once I Was An Eagle is her longest record by quite some way, but it meanders with an ease that was lacking on the at times forced stylings of 2011's A Creature I Don't Know. Marling's musical ability has finally caught pace with her incredible way with words, and the results are a joy.
The first fifteen minutes or so flow as one continuous piece. Guitar, piano and string drop in and breeze out, again and again, like old friends you haven't seen in far too long, and our storyteller soars up and down simple scales to devastating effect (most notably on the title track - that repeated lament of "# When we were in love... #" is something else).
When recent single 'Master Hunter' starts up, it feels almost like a rude interruption, as Marling embraces her lower register, snarling about how it's all going to be okay now because she's an impenetrable fortress and her heart can't be broken because no-one's getting anywhere near it. The other key difference on this record compared to everything that's come before is that Marling understands exactly what she can do with her voice now, pushing it to its limits to convey different moods. Her peers either don't have the talent, or don't have the balls, to experiment and reinvent their vocal identity as she does on tracks like 'Breathe', 'Once', 'Devil's Resting Place' and the old world blues of 'Undine'.
Lyrically, however, the themes are reassuringly similar to what Marling has offered us before, and there probably hasn't been a young British singer-songwriter since Amy Winehouse who can write about heartbreak with such authenticity and flair. 'Undine's tale of reaching absolute rock bottom - that horrible moment where the last bit of hope within you feels like it's died - is skillfully wrapped up in a tale about a mystical creature of the sea. 'I Was An Eagle' is a more oblique look at the death of love, but equally bleak and clever for it.
All but one or two of the tracks on offer feature honest, self-deprecating references to our narrator's failings. What's so refreshing though is that as a piece of art, that honesty is anything but a failure. Once I Was An Eagle takes a battering ram to contemporary music's smoke and mirrors conjured up by Autotune, electronic drops copy-pasted and scattered across Radio 1 and commercial radio's daytime playlists, colour-corrected, 1080p videos, pithy, half-arsed references to love and loss... and every other evil deemed 'necessary' for success in the music industry of 2013. When all those fads have faded away to be replaced by the next big thing, it'll be albums like this that endure for decades. So, congratulations, Ms Marling - Once Upon An Eagle is the sound of an artist in total control of her own musical destiny.
Secret Cinema will play host to an "immersive live music experience" from Laura Marling in Central London for sixteen nights in June. More details are available here.