Laura Marling’s new album ‘Once I Was An Eagle’ is a bit of an odd duck. Before I even listened to it, I was taken aback by its length, 16 tracks and just over an hour in duration. As it turns out ‘Once I Was An Eagle’ is essentially two shorter albums compressed into one. It feels almost as if Marling had a change of heart in the middle of her writing process, perhaps the same change of heart that led her to relocate to America around the time of its release.
‘Once I Was An Eagle’ is divided into two discrete sections, conveniently separated by an instrumental ‘Interlude’. The first part of the album is difficult, even unnerving, as Marling strays from her typical folk style to experiment with amorphous song structures, alternative tonalities, and shifting rhythms. She also seems to have dabbled a bit in larger musical forms, if the album’s first four tracks are taken as one larger body of work, almost like a classical song cycle. The songs are thematically similar and so seamlessly blended that I almost had trouble telling when one track ended and the next began. Fifth track and first single ‘Master Hunter’ (video below) is a raucous closure to those first four tracks, indicating a change in mood to the dark, powerful tracks ‘Little Love Caster’ and ‘Devil’s Resting Place’.
Then comes the ‘Interlude’, which segues from darkness and dissonance to the sweeter, lighter side of the album. (I haven’t seen a vinyl version, but this would be a perfect place to manually turn the record over.) The second half feels more comfortable somehow, maybe because it is, to some degree, more predictable. The songs become less painfully personal and slightly more external in perspective. Two second-person characters are introduced, the eponymous ‘Undine’, and Rosie in the soaring ‘Little Bird’. Marling warms her sound with hints of blues and gospel, notably in the organ’s harmonic progression in ‘Once’. Final track ‘Saved These Words’ builds from a slow, sparse introduction to a full and resonant chorus: “You weren’t my curse / but thank you, naivete, for failing me again / he was my next verse.”
‘Once I Was An Eagle’ is less immediately accessible than 2011’s ‘A Creature I Don’t Know’. Marling’s voice has matured, both in terms of her lyrics and her vocal timbre. She alternates easily between the declamatory, if slightly abrasive, lower register and the sweet, soulful higher range, using her voice to its fullest effect. Likewise, the instrumentation throughout the album is ingenious and inventive, trading raw, ragged folk for a broader, bolder sound. Rather than making a strong emotional connection, the album instead makes a dynamic and deliberate statement of intent about Marling’s future artistic direction.
‘Once I Was An Eagle’ is available now via Ribbon Music. Laura Marling is currently playing a series of sold out Secret Cinema dates in London.