For her age, contemporary folk troubadour Laura Marling has accomplished an incredible amount in a reasonably short space of time. Since her inception in 2006, the singer/songwriter has wowed audiences and wooed her fair share of celebrity suitors, been nominated for the Mercury Music prize, twice, and won the Best Female Solo Artist in 2011 whilst also being nominated for the same prize a year later. Needless to say, despite her tender age of 23, Marling has asserted herself as the figurehead of contemporary folk and proved that there's a distinct amount of sustainability to her music that's rarely afforded by other artists of her ilk. Now, coming fiver years after her début Alas, I Cannot Swim, Marling has released her fourth studio album entitled Once I Was an Eagle and fans can rest assured that it is very much, business as usual, sort of.
Once I Was an Eagle was an incredibly difficult album for me to start reviewing, and not for want of trying. It wasn't that folk music doesn't interest me (it does) and it's not that the album is the twee affair that a lot of contemporary folk music seems to be (it isn't) It's the fact that this is quite easily Marling's most commercially viable and polished album to date. That isn't a bad thing however, it's just it harbours a particular layer of gloss that needed chipping away before it began to reveal the personality hidden beneath.
That isn't to say that Once...is an album laden with ambiguous personal metaphors, it's very much an album we can all relate to, as all good folk records should be all the while managing to maintain a distinct level of autonomy over the course of the 16 tracks. Starting of light and breezy in the form of 'Take the Night Off', it doesn't take long for Marling to assert a more tempestuous set of dynamics that see her eschew the current stereotype that's befallen most girls with a guitar, instead she not only draws from the likes of Joni Mitchell or PJ Harvey but proves herself as their equal as well. It's as if with this record, Marling intends to take us on the emotional journey typical of a break-up, anger, resentment, bitterness and finally acceptance; and, at it's most debased, that is exactly what Once... is, a break-up album.
The first half of the record is a tenacious and anger ridden affair which crackles and burns with an intensity atypical of the genre and is no way indicative of the first two tracks featured; songs such as 'Master Hunter' and 'Devil's Resting Place' are melodic in their own right but see a distinctly more husky edge to the vocal than you'd expect from a female folk singer and it's all the better for it. Conversely the second part of the album (following a short 'Interlude') seems to be the latter half of a break up and sees Marling sounding more upbeat, optimistic even accepting.
This polarisation of anger and acceptance is ultimately what makes Once I was An Eagle such an interesting album, beyond of course the undeniable talent that seems to radiate from Marling herself. It's also this polarisation that gives the record it's universal appeal. We've all been there, we empathise with her and despite initial reservations about the album, there's several factors at play beneath it's shiny veneer that make it such an easy negative to (eventually) overlook. The only other gripe that I have is Marling's occasional habit for slipping in to an unnatural and quite frankly, unnecessary American accent. Yes she has recently moved to the States, but Laura, is it really that paramount you immerse yourself in Americana so whole heartedly?