Once I Was An Eagle (Rough Trade)
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.