It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth spin of Laura Marling’s fourth LP, Once I Was an Eagle, that I began to hit upon what it is that makes this a great record. I knew from the first that it was overwhelmingly strange, and that this strangeness was the key to understanding the record. But how do you describe strangeness, such a relative and therefore slippery concept to begin with?
Of course, some of that strangeness comes from Marling’s voice. Her phrasing throughout is enchanting and inscrutable. She stretches words to their breaking points, wrapping every syllable in smoke. On “I Was an Eagle,” she delivers lines like “I’ve got damn near no dignity left” with an evocative flatness that is her vocal signature. Her rich upper register, sparingly employed, retains a special force by virtue of its rarity. Her approach is a testament to the power of restraint. Lesser singers might belt or bellow much ado about nothing where Marling can murmur volumes.
Perhaps more of that weirdness can be found in the songs themselves, which are so elegantly constructed that you scarcely notice how smart they are. This is nowhere more evident than on the first seven tracks, which comprise what I can only call a gothic folk song suite, the central theme of which seems to be what Marling considers the loathsome subjugation of self that so often occurs in romance. Lyrics, melodies, and rhythmic figures echo across the individual pieces, connecting them to one another and extending the suite’s themes and motifs. For example, on “Take the Night Off,” the singer repeatedly addresses her unwanted suitor as a beast. Later (a couple of times, actually), in a winning twist on that imagery, she refers to herself as a “master hunter.”
The audacity of such a conceit is stunning in itself (as is the fact that she’s willing to take on Bob Dylan and repurpose his lines for her own use on “Master Hunter”), but what’s more stunning still is how well the conceit works. The suite alone is so rich, musically and lyrically, that it promises to reward countless plays with fresh insights. The songs that make up the record’s second half, though they naturally lack the suite’s ambition, are just as strong. As a writer, Marling is practically peerless on the contemporary scene.
With lyrics this good, one fears that the music will pale by comparison. Fortunately, that’s never the case on Once I Was an Eagle. Grounded in folk forms, it nonetheless draws from a broad sonic template, incorporating drums, piano, and strings. The result is both lush and austere, quite unlike anything else this writer has ever heard.
The cumulative effect of all this is the strangeness I alluded to earlier, and it doesn’t make for easy listening. This is challenging stuff, but it’s certainly worth the effort. Once I Was an Eagle is a singular achievement: a haunting record, peopled with aural ghosts that come gradually crawling from out of the grooves. While it might take a while for them to materialize, once they do you’ll never be rid of them - and you’ll be glad to have such interesting company. [A-]
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