By Eleni P. Austin
For her 13th birthday, Laura Marling’s parents gave her two albums, Blue by Joni Mitchell and Horses by Patti Smith. Those two recordings changed her life.
The youngest of three daughters, Marling was born in rural Hampshire, England. Her father ran a small recording studio on their property. (The La’s recorded their epochal Brit-Pop masterpiece, There She Goes there). Charlie Marling encouraged his daughter’s musical aspirations by teaching her guitar. By age six she tackled Neil Young’s harrowing indictment of heroin addiction, “The Needle And The Damage Done.”
At 16, Marling moved to London to begin a career in music. She immediately fell in with like-minded Folkies. By 18, she had released her debut, Alas I Cannot Swim. Produced by Noah & The Whale front man, (and ex-beau), Charlie Fink. The album was hailed a masterpiece. The music cognoscenti anointed her the new Joni Mitchell.
Rather than rest on her laurels, Marling quickly released two more albums, I Speak Because I Can in 2009, and Creature I Don’t Know in 2011. The music press was equally effusive.
Now Marling has returned with her ambitious fourth effort, Once I Was An Eagle. Produced by multi-instrumentalist, Ethan Johns (who produced Marling’s second and third albums as well as Tom Jones triumphant new album). The album features minimal instrumentation provided by Marling, Johns and cellist Ruth de Turberville.
Once… opens with an astonishing five song suite that plunges the listener down a rabbit hole of romantic regret. On “Take The Night Off,” “You Know,” “Breathe” and “Master Hunter,” Marling employs the same melody, with slight variations, to diagram the end of a relationship.
“Take The Night Off” sets the stage, opening with lone vocals and guitar. The melody pivots from contemplative to insistent, aided by furious acoustic strumming and an increasing tabla beat. Marling’s tone is low and intimate, (we aren’t so much listening as eavesdropping). “You should be gone beast,” she coldly asserts, urging her lover out the door.
Marling’s resolve hardens on “I Was An Eagle.” Her conversational vocals shift to rapid trilling. A fluttery cello underscores her regret and resolve to be less naïve. “I will not be a victim of romance, chance or circumstance or romance/ Or any man who would get his hands on me.”
The proceedings slow on “You Know.” Cascading acoustic arpeggios ripple under the weight of accusation and disillusionment. “We were a pair once, oh of such despair once/ We were a child then I’m sure, but if we were a child then we are children no more.”
Spiky guitar riffs and a sawing cello propel “Breathe.” The arrangement resides comfortably between a galloping “Gallows Pole” Celtic mysticism and transcendent Sufi spirituality. It’s a sober post-mortem… “How cruel I am to you, cruel things I do/ How cruel you were to me, how cruel time can be.”
The suite concludes with the exhilarating “Master Hunter.” A declaration of sexual independence matched with fleet and furious acoustic notes and tribal percussion. Marling is in command as she dismisses her man once and for all… “You wanna a woman who will call your name, it ain’t me babe/No, no it ain’t me babe.”
With that final refrain, Marling manages to echo Bob Dylan’s old dismissive kiss-off, flipping the script on his flippant misogyny.
Those five songs serve as act one in this tale of romantic disenchantment. On the remainder of the album, Marling sets about re-calibrating her life.
On both “Little Love Crusher” and “Once” Marling is full of self-reproach. The lonesome melody is piloted by filigreed Spanish guitar. Still smarting from the break up, Marling asserts, “I will not be your Tiny Dancer.”
The latter is contemplative, as though Marling is taking emotional inventory… “Once is enough to break you/ Once is enough to make you think twice about laying love on the line.”
Although only three musicians play on this album, several tracks replicate the sound of a full band. The majestic “Undine” feels like “Stairway To Heaven” meets Appalachian mountain music. Marling ties her heartbreak to the fairy tale myth of Undine, a water spirit who marries a knight to gain a soul.
The instrumentation that colors “Where Can I Go,” recalls the rustic charm of the Band and Ryan Adams. The lyrics are a lonely discourse on the solitude of night.
“Pray For Me” is anchored by propulsive guitar licks, nimble cello runs and a martial cadence. The melody exudes a grandiosity of a Jeff Buckley song.
Happily, the final tracks on the album feel like the light at the end of the tunnel. “When Were You Happy? (And How Long Has That Been) takes tentative steps toward a new romance… “Hey new friend across the sea, if you figure out things would you figure in me?”
“Love Be Brave” is spare and angular, blending sun-dappled acoustic guitar and diffident percussion. Marling is appealingly ardent…”How does he make love so sweet, isn’t that some heavy feat?” The melody of “Little Bird” manages to evoke comparisons to the ethereal Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira” era.
The album closes with “Saved These Words.” Plangent and percolating, Marling let’s go of the past and just indulges in the happiness of the moment… “Should you choose, should you choose to love anyone anytime soon/Then I save these words for you. ”Sweet words at the end of an emotional journey.
Once I Was An Eagle is a trenchant song cycle that is at once intimate and expansive. Clearly, Marling has distilled Joni Mitchell’s landmark albums, “Blue,” “Court & Spark” and “Hejira” but she has also expanded her sonic palette. A savvy listener will detect the influence of British touchstones like Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, Richard & Linda Thompson and Kate Bush. More contemporary muses include the late Jeff Buckley and Ani DiFranco.
Much like Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, k.d. lang’s Ingenue and Ani DiFranco’s Dilate, Once I Was An Eagle is loosely conceptual. The songs parse the agony of heartbreak, the regenerative power of solitude and the frisson of new romance. It’s a cathartic pilgrimage, and we are along for the ride.