The first time I heard Laura Marling was in a concert hall in Brooklyn in 2009. She had her white blonde hair done up in a messy bun, its wispiness creating, with the help of the stage lighting, a corona around her head. She wore white Converse high tops, jeans, and a white long-sleeve shirt: casual, unstudied, unassuming, though nothing could downplay her pre-Raphaelite beauty. Accompanied only by a cellist, she played as if she was artisan hard at work building a piece of furniture: concentrated, taciturn, perhaps masking nerves. She was 19 years old.
It never gets old, how young Laura Marling is. Of all the young musicians put up on a pedestal on account of their age, Marling is one of the more modest. In fact, she makes any conversation about age moot as soon as she opens her mouth. We don’t have much time to marvel at her; we’re too busy listening to what she has to say. It is astounding what she has accomplished up until this point, but it is also beside the point. Since she was a teenager, Marling’s work has been wise and worldly; let her career be a final lesson that age really is nothing but a number.
Her new album, Once I Was An Eagle, perhaps a nod to Bill Callahan’s 2009 album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, is her fourth and her longest. Coincidentally, or maybe not, it’s also the first time she appears to emotionally spill over the surface of the space she’s allotted herself to emote. She swears, she half-speaks (which she did a little on 2011’s A Creature I Don’t Know), and she appears to still be wrestling with a few of the dilemmas tackled on the last album. In 2011, Marling explained that she had planned to release two albums at once; instead Eagle appears now, nearly two years after Creature, which explains the thematic links.
Eagle opens with a song addressed to the “beast” at the center of the last album. This beast has inspired some of her best music. But two albums doesn’t make this perverse muse any more comprehensible to the listener (or Marling, arguably). Still, she gets closer to defining what it is: a roiling force within her, an alter ego that possesses, rather than something or someone external (on the stunning “Night After Night,” from the last album, she explained it this way: “Forgive me lover / my love is driven by rage”). On the opener, “Take the Night Off,” she says: “Take the night off and be bad for me,” as if to say that she’s done being controlled by the beast’s impulses — or close to being done, at least, because the first line of that song is, “You should be gone, beast.” On “You Know,” she again shows she’s still haunted by the demon: “Give me a minute there / just a minute more / I’ll come back to me.”
As Matthew Perpetua wrote in a review of the album on BuzzFeed, Eagle is even stronger for its sound engineering (but I take serious issue with the name of his review, “Even If You Don’t Like Folk, You Need to Hear This Album”). Even more so than on Creature, Marling sounds blessedly, heart-warmingly close to our ears here (“so close,” writes Rolling Stone, “you can smell the cigarettes on her breath”). This is a signature of her music, and it’s crucial to it, because her lyrics are the centerpiece of her work and ought never to be obscured, or even close. Too many musicians do this, and they might have their reasons, but it’s very frustrating to fans of words.
Reading the lyrics alone, without even listening along to the music, they are remarkable: complicated, clever, arcane. Consider the beginning of one of strongest songs on the album, “Love Be Brave”:
In a world you can’t get lost in
I find my way to him
I am purpose and regret
You’re a feeling I’ll forget
What will I do then?
How did I sleep at night
With you far from my side?
Hold me down, make no sound
Silence speaks for me
As a closet songwriter, Marling’s devotion to the craft has inspired me more than probably any other contemporary musician. Her songs are celebrations of a difficult undertaking, but an undertaking that anyone can attempt and greatly benefit from (not necessarily financially, but that should never be the point). In a profile in the New York Times a couple of years ago, she explained, echoing similar words by Joanna Newsom, that, “I feel sometimes that I’m in a constant state of being lost in translation, and I guess that’s why I write songs.”
On the topic of inspiration, she said, “I like to wait until they want to be written rather than trying to write them. I feel like I’m creeping closer to finding the situation that triggers songwriting, which is obviously an extreme of an emotion. But also it’s late at night, with half a bottle of wine missing.” Elsewhere she’s said that she often writes songs at the kitchen table.
With more than five years of touring under her belt, Marling was bound to give us her thoughts on this challenging lifestyle at some point, and it comes on “Where Can I Go?” Unlike a lot of modern ballads of road-weariness, which can provoke annoyance in the listener (or at least this listener!), it’s haunting, sad and relatable. It’s also one of many instances of Marling excelling, as Dylan does, at rhymes or half-rhymes. The rhyming, in both musicians’ cases, adds to their considerable lyrical wit.
Late at night he’ll come to me
and he’ll tell me I’m alone
Don’t you think I don’t already know?
all I see is road
no one takes me home
where, where can I go?
She picks up a similar theme on “You Know”: “You asked me blind once / If I was a child once / I said I’m not really sure.” Growing up the daughter of a music studio owner and musician, Marling was an accomplished guitar player at a very young age, but “couldn’t slot myself into the age-appropriate genre,” as he told the Times. She grew up fast, but she was lucky in the sense that it seems her talent and ideas propelled her, not the mainstream music machine.
Due to the length of Once I Was An Eagle, it’s understandable why critics might question Marling’s stylistic venturing, which is far more substantial on this album than any of her previous efforts. There is more electric guitar (a huge plus, in my view), more piano, more sampling, and a few more electronics. It doesn’t all quite work, you could argue — 16 songs, divided by an interlude, of Marling’s minimal folk, classical guitar-influneced ballads like “Little Love Caster,” English folk tributes like “When Were You Happy (And How Long Has That Been)?”, classic rock send-ups like “Love Be Brave” and “Once,” more upbeat folk pop like “Saved These Words” and the Bonnie Raitt-esque “Where Can I Go?” and an experimental piano-and-guitar pop song reminiscent of Bat for Lashes (“Devil’s Resting Place”).
But I would argue that it paid to be adventurous here. Maybe we irritating critics will call this Marling’s “transitional album,” but that’s not a criticism. She’s just dipping her feet into the vast sea of musical ideas that her talent can tackle. If that brings her talent to a wider audience in the process, all the better.