Laura Marling has been making consistently impressive, rich folk music since she was a teenager, and Once I Was an Eagle feels like the culmination of years of relentless development as a songwriter. Although 2008’s Alas I Cannot Swim, 2010’s I Speak Because I Can and 2011’s A Creature I Don’t Know were all achievements of themselves, Once I Was An Eagle sounds polished and grown-up, soulful without any of the twee sensibilities that British folk music can sometimes evoke. Although up until now Marling has suffered from being grouped in with other more mainstream and less impressive acts like festival favourites Mumford and Sons, this album truly sets her apart.
As ever, Marling’s voice is intimate and mature on this album; she sounds wise without veering into precocity. With 16 songs on the track listing, this is an ambitious and conceptual record, dealing with a failed relationship with melancholy and self-awareness, but never self-pity. Marling addresses the issue of her move to LA throughout the album on tracks like the ‘When Were You Happy (And How Long Has That Been)’, which burns with intensity and a Dylanesque sound, all the while interweaving the theme of rebirth and moving forward through her songs, many of which sound like short stories. Although her songs always seem to be self-examining and deeply personal and have done since her first album, there is a distance provided by the subtlety in Marling’s lyrics that leave much of Once I Was An Eagle open for interpretation. These songs are more stripped down than in her previous album, with just a cellist, percussion, piano and organ accompanying Marling’s distinctive vocal and guitar, and the instruments are used sparingly and delicately, particularly on tracks like ‘Breathe.’
Despite it’s length, Once I Was An Eagle never drags, and leaves the listener wondering just how Marling will build on this intricate and sophisticated album. At 23, she still has many years ahead of her, and hopes are higher than ever that Marling will continue to set the standard for British folk music in the decades to come.