Once I Was An Eagle by Laura Marling: Whenever power emerges, there’s a sense of innocence lost

Her voice, once so English, has turned into a slip-slidey American lilt, half-speech, half-jazz, frequently yoyoing to a deeper register ... In Marling, we’re watching an accelerated transition from youthful talent to artistic sophistication.

Once I Was An Eagle (Rough Trade)
Laura Marling

Laura Marling’s album titles have a certain ring: Alas, I Cannot Swim; I Speak Because I Can; A Creature I Don’t Know, and now, the meter-wrecking Once I Was An Eagle. Perhaps they represent her journey from introspective teenager to ruling pontiff of contemporary folk. Her new album starts with a 20-minute suite of acoustic jazz, miles from the kick-drum thrum of the folk that makes it into the UK top ten: this is a return to the dextrous sound of Bert Jansch or Davey Graham.

Marling’s aura of self-possession has allowed her to make a major change to her singing style in the past two years without anyone saying anything. Her voice, once so English, has turned into a slip-slidey American lilt, half-speech, half-jazz, frequently yoyoing to a deeper register. She has always done things you wouldn’t expect – a Vogue photoshoot for her last album, a relocation to Los Angeles. She’s smart and practical, recognising the potential in the US just like her former peers and boyfriends, Marcus Mumford and Charlie Fink (Noah and the Whale). Now, the boys of the “Notting Hill folk scene” are free to play music somewhere that neither knows nor cares they weren’t born working class, while the scale of the country keeps them in a constant state of touring triumph.

Marling – less commercial than Mumford, more advanced as a musician – hovers on the edge of celebrity but her appeal has always been the unadorned purity of her songs, which seem to come out of her automatically, amid downcast eyes and fingers in perpetual motion, like the strange, unconscious talent of a choirboy. It never appealed to me. I always found her persona too chilly to allow me to engage with the music – but suddenly I’m getting all nostalgic for the Marling of five years ago. Which just goes to show how developed – and developing – this artist must be.

On the album’s overture (“Take The Night Off”/“I Was An Eagle”/“You Know”/ “Breathe”) acoustic guitar and double bass flit between simple and jazz-time signatures. Marling’s voice curls like a Solid Air-era John Martyn – a close-miked, intimate presence (there are only two other people playing on most of these songs). “Little Love Caster”, a Spanish guitar elegy, is a successful twist in her style. “Where Can I Go” may be her tenderest moment yet, with a rolling accompaniment just like Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game”, little wisps of Hammond organ and a sharply drawn picture of a girl who is utterly lost. Elsewhere, Marling writes with the selfawareness that often makes her sound aloof, life experiences merely ammunition for her songs: “Thank you, naivety, for failing me again – he was my next verse” (“Saved These Words”). Across the course of this 16-track album, there’s the sense of a dramatic role being played out and shrugged off. By the time you reach “Little Bird”, with its flutes and unusual melodic shifts, you’re struck by her exceptional lightness of touch.

Only “Master Hunter”, the single, is a total shocker. A turbulent tale of some folk femme fatale featuring Marling’s “new voice” at its most mannered, its accompanying video shows the singer performing to a woman throwing herself around in a leotard. There are plenty of tributes to Dylan in the song – in the line “it ain’t me, babe”, or complex chords that sound just like “Tangled Up in Blue” – but oh, how I wish she wouldn’t try to do Bob’s voice as well, sliding up and down the notes. You are too English, Laura, it will never work! “The Muse”, the first single from her previous album, was equally stagy – the rest of the stuff felt so much more natural.

In Marling, we’re watching an accelerated transition from youthful talent to artistic sophistication: whenever power emerges, there’s a sense of innocence lost. I interviewed her around the time of her first record, which came as a limited-edition box set – Marling, like many other artists around at that time, had designed various bits of ephemera to bring out the physical pleasures of a CD versus an invisible download: a snakes-andladders- style board game, some postcards, all of which she’d drawn herself. You’d never get Laura Marling for a quick phoner on handicrafts now. She was just like any other young singer, in love with her parents’ record collection, sad for the “good old days” of vinyl and a bit starry-eyed. But we wouldn’t be talking about her now if she’d stayed that way.

On the road: Laura Marling in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times