Back in what now feels like the mists of time (let’s call it five years ago), before you could buy ‘artisan lifestyle’ pantaloons inspired by Ted Dwane’s stagewear and when the nu-folk movement was still definably a ‘thing’, the quality it prized above all others was authenticity. For a small congregation of privileged west London teens and twenty-somethings on their starter beards, in love with the idea of being minstrels and troubadours, it was an understandable fixation. But Laura Marling, the most precocious and preternatural of the lot of them, was always a little bit different: her main concern was honesty, which isn’t quite the same thing.
Those one-time contemporaries have since gone their separate ways. Noah And The Whale are two albums into a curveball AOR makeover, while Mumford & Sons have evolved into a tweedier Coldplay – a band who address the Big Themes with broad, generalised brushstrokes, so that the top tier of the stadium doesn’t have to strain too hard to make sense of them. Marling’s focus, however, has remained unchanged and near forensic. Her fourth album sifts through the flotsam of another failed love affair, its 16 tracks presented in the order they were written, a decision that doesn’t allow much room for ambiguity. Yet it’s not about heartbreak so much as the catharsis that eventually arises from it. ‘Once I Was An Eagle’ is an intense, internal record with a clear emotional arc. The portrait it paints of the author is not always flattering, but the truth rarely is.
It begins not on a note of sadness or denial, but of cynicism and resignation. The four songs that comprise the startling opening suite – ‘Take The Night Off’, ‘I Was An Eagle’, ‘You Know’ and ‘Breathe’ – are connected by the same musical tissue, a squall of acoustic turbulence and fevered tom-toms that arrive intermittently, without warning or reason, like a black mood. “I don’t want you to want me/Wouldn’t want you to know“, Marling sighs early on, already way past woebegone. We never learn much about her newly jettisoned beau, because the record isn’t really concerned with their relationship; it’s about Marling herself, and she’s completely determined not to let herself be a victim of “chances, circumstance and romance/Or any man who could get his dirty little hands on me“. She’s not pining after anyone. Indeed, on ‘I Was An Eagle’, when she catches herself reminiscing about “when we were in love“, the next breath is a corrective one: “if we were“. Ouch.
As the album progresses, that gradually changes. Whenever Marling’s alter-ego – whom she’s named Rosie – is feeling resolute or invulnerable, as on the predatory snarl of ‘Master Hunter’, the songs become louder and more aggressive. On ‘Undine’, she even seems to be likening herself to the vengeful water goddess of French mythology, who cursed her ex-lover never to sleep, lest he stop breathing. When insecurity and hesitation begin to take root, however, things go whisper-quiet at the realisation that an even share of the blame may lie at her feet: “So why not run from everyone/Who only tries to love you?” she castigates herself on the hushed inner monologue of ‘Little Bird’. Then, of course, there’s the self-explanatory ‘When Were You Happy (And How Long Has That Been)’, a thorny, Bob Dylan tangle of self-doubt and hard truths, examining the reasons behind Marling’s real-life move to LA, where the album was recorded.
The effect of all this is that, when it comes – on closing track ‘Saved These Words’ – the catharsis feels truly earned: “You weren’t my curse“, she finally decides. “Thank you naivety for failing me again/He was my next verse“. Four albums into a remarkable career in which she’s yet to put a foot wrong, Marling is still waiting for her chorus. ‘Once I Was An Eagle’ sets a high bar; does anyone doubt she’ll soar over it?