Review Summary: "And damn all those hippies, who stomp empty-footed upon all that's good, all that's pure in the world"
English folk musician Laura Marling’s latest release is a living and breathing labyrinth. it’s acutely self-aware of how its ends meet in all the clever ways, like its signature melody that both begins and ends matters, its familiarity veiled behind a simple mirror image. The record begins with bursts of blissful ascension, the notes within lingering in the air long after they’ve been played-- so that when an eerily familiar succession of notes cracks through the surface in the final song’s cessation, it’s both comforting and meaningful. This main motif of Once I Was An Eagle
not only paces the record, but at times, carries it entirely-- the most endearing tracks here carry it on their sleeves, and they aren’t even embarrassed of being a little derivative. The album's sewn together tightly by these recurring ideas, ready to fall into disarray the instant they’re dismantled.
And when the motifs fade, Laura Marling longs for them. The album becomes uncomfortably tense, lacking any sort of lasting appeal. Songs that have evident meaning, ballads like “When Were You Happy"” drift by like spiritless tumbleweeds, rumbling between the album’s pockets of vitality in aimless fashion. The song possesses some sense of dynamic, though, something “Undine” can’t even say for itself. The track only offers predictably moody plucked guitar, and maintains a specific degree of complacency throughout. The songs are resoundingly indifferent, and much of this has to do with the bare-bones instrumentation used within Once I Was An Eagle
It reflects well on the musician, then, that most of the album’s flaws are with its accompanying music. Marling fares well throughout the release because she’s out in the open-- no longer hidden behind walls of varying sound. Once I Was An Eagle
harnesses energy in the personal moments, the ones where Marling casually mutters witticisms about love. She’s the center of attention on the record, but never once does it feel like oversaturation. It’s because she works wonders with the spotlight, only to direct it towards the music when it has something just as important to say. It’s this give-and-take interplay that makes I Was An Eagle such an exciting record, that it’s as much about when Laura Marling doesn’t
sing as it is about when she does. The silences are important-- vital, even, to the music’s sense of integrity.
The most telling moment of Once I Was An Eagle
is the carefully planned transition between the album’s two most gargantuan songs. “Master Hunter,” steady and well-paced as it is, serves as a replication of the musician Laura Marling wants to be, the lyricist and stern lover she wishes she were. “I am the master hunter,” she affirms in its midsection, the track serving as some type of musical oath to which Marling holds herself. But then the coda comes to a complete close, and the instant its successor “Little Love Caster” begins, it’s clear she doesn’t believe herself at all. She wonders, amidst the poignant acoustic guitar and stop-start tempo, if it’s even worth it. All the efforts Laura Marling has made to conceal herself beneath this veil of independence have unraveled in an instant. And it all makes sense now-- the girl Marling references in the eponymous title track, the one she dismisses as “naive,” that falls “in love with the first man that she sees,” is none other than herself. This is the romantic catharsis of Laura Marling, with all the thorny baggage that comes with such a task. And it’s easily the most charming she’s ever been-- she's no master hunter, but she doesn't need to be.