Album review

Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle

Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle

The "English Joni" ruthlessly dissects her love life on confessional fourth...

Ever since the appearance of her debut Alas, I Cannot Swim in 2008, Laura Marling has had to get used to being compared to Joni Mitchell, a reflection on the commendable acuity and intelligence of her lyrical observations rather than any musical similarities. Those comparisons are unlikely to diminish with the release of Once I Was An Eagle, which recalls Mitchell's landmark Blue in the way she ruthlessly dissects her love life, hunting for emotional satisfaction. Rarely since the Laurel Canyon heyday of CSNY, Jackson Browne et al has the confessional mode been quite so unashamedly mined for artistic ore than on an album whose closing track "Saved These Words" offers the scarred conclusion "You weren't my curse/Thank you naivete for failing me again/He was my next verse". It's almost like a form of protective colouration, warning would-be suitors she won't be trifled with, and won't hide bitter consequences behind undue politesse.

It takes her a while to reach that resolution, although naivete is a recurrent theme throughout the album's various stages, as she progresses through the responses to romantic catastrophe - anger, disbelief, bitterness, resignation, the usual immolations of the spirit. "Once is enough to break you... to make you think twice about laying your love on the line," she reflects in "Once"; and even earlier, in the brutal "Master Hunter" - a sort of 21st century take on the theme of "It Ain't Me, Babe" - she's already cauterised the most scorching pain: "I cured my skin, now nothing gets in".

"Master Hunter" is the closing passage of an extended five-song sequence - or the bridge to the next sequence - which opens the album with a relentless, wave-like insistence, the songs segueing smoothly on the back of rich, resonant modal strumming, as if successive chapters of a single train of thought. It's an unflinching rumination on desire, doubt and disgust, Marling acknowledging her own complicity in the situation even as she steels herself: "I will not be a victim of romance... of circumstance... or any little man who would get his dirty hands on me," she resolves in the title-track, before admitting, "When we were in love, I was an eagle, and you were a dove". Romance, she realises, is a complex dance of predator and prey, in which neither party ever solely plays the one role.

Working alone for the first time with just producer Ethan Johns, Marling recorded her vocal and guitar parts live, in a single day. Then over the next nine days, they overdubbed further textures - mostly guitar, but hints of organ, along with Ruth De Turberville's cello - and the rattling, explosive undercarriage of hand percussion that drives the songs along and offers dramatic punctuation to the action. In places - notably "Breathe" and "Devil's Resting Place" - the strings and drones lend the arrangements an eastern, Arabic flavour; while elsewhere, the delicate guitar filigree hangs sparse and spider-web slim across "Undine", a more traditional-sounding folk song about a sea-spirit.

The latter is one of several cases of Marling transmuting the highly personal subject-matter into mythopoeic tableaux - "Little Bird", for instance, uses a discussion between the eponymous avian and Marling's alter-ego, Rosie, to contemplate the impulses which have recently led the songwriter to shift base to a suburb of Los Angeles. "When I think about the life I left behind, I still raise no praise to the sky," she admits in the wistful "Once", though whether creating a new life alone abroad will settle her emotional issues remains to be seen; it's a conundrum perhaps best summarised in the title of a transatlantic epistle here addressed to a "new friend across the sea", who may, of course, be herself: "When Were You Happy? (And How Long Has That Been)".
Andy Gill

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Rating: 9 / 10

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