Twenty-three, and already four excellent albums under her belt. To speak of Laura Marling’s youth is something to celebrated – not a record-selling ploy -- particularly when she’s got the blues equal to that of men and women three-times her age. “Once I Was an Eagle” showcases the English folk songwriter’s ever-better abilities on guitar, but also her joy in playing with others, as she’s set her stage to almost counter the noises and crescendos that battle her emotional play.
Marling starts her metaphorical mission on “Eagle,” naturally, on wings, giving some background on her character’s damaged state in a sensual vibrato. “Every little girl is so naïve… I will not be a victim of romance,” she sings on her “I Was an Eagle” before letting her defiance give way to absolute mourning. “You Know” poses the question to herself (and her listeners): am I a gallant animal or a vulnerable baby human? This anthropomorphizing comes to a head in “Master Hunter,” a title and sound that is as aggressive as Marling gets, in its harsh Dylan-esque cadences and a foreshadowing: “I am a master hunter / I cured my skin, now nothing gets in.”
Yes, thank God, she ultimately turns this march into the ocean (or, “Devil’s Resting Place”) around, with an actual “Interlude” and cheerier arrangements and uptempo rockers -- even as she admits somethings do get under her skin. Jaunty tune “Pray for Me” concludes “I cannot love, I want to be alone” even as there’s the instrumental and sonic promise of ascent and healing from love-burn. “Love Be Brave” waxes regret and change but sways like a James Taylor-meets-Joni beach song. “Where Can I Go” transitions from impeccable finger-picking to strong strumming as she churns on childhood and woman-ness. Like acoustic, left coast Pink Floyd, “Little Bird" has her back into flight and on closer “Saved These Words," she thanks “naivety for failing me again / he was my next verse.”
Yup, that’s the sound of a book being closed.
Marling brings this whopper full circle, though it runs too long. She takes her time on this collection of quiet burnings, full of her usual idiosyncrasies. There are not just some sophisticated truths of womanhood, but of the human, young, mistake-laden life cycle, something that’s dark and yet redemptive by its end. She keeps true to her character, too, as defiant and grand, beautifully so. Articulate with her voice, lyrics and guitar-playing, Marling can tell a good story with proof that age is nothing but a number.