If the usual tropes about Laura Marling in the past have centered around the British singer-songwriter’s startling precocity, on her fourth album, Once I Was An Eagle, the conversation shifts to her maturity. At 23, Marling has clearly crafted her most virtuosic album—lyrically rich and engaging, with adept arrangements that often nod to ’60s folk and country but leave plenty of Marling’s own stamps.
2011’s A Creature I Don’t Know found Marling going in a heavy folk-rock direction but falling short of her best material, 2010’s I Speak Because I Can. After what’s been described as a fairly rocky tour, the singer retreated to the studio with producer Ethan Johns. They recorded all the vocals and guitars for Eagle, alone, in one marathon recording session.
At 16 songs, Eagle can sometimes feel overwrought, but Marling may have also created a classic. The record opens with a four-song cycle that sets the album’s dominant theme of artistic independence. “When you wake you’ll know I’m gone, where I’m going there’s no one,” she sings on “Breathe.” “So don’t follow me.” While the opening section’s schematic is sweeping orchestral folk, Marling goes into deeper modal folk on “Little Love Caster,” and recalls murder ballads like “The Two Sisters” (and its variants) with the melody and imagery of “Undine.” Eagle continues to progress in sections, moving on to folk-rock with the excellent “Where Can I Go?,” reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt, and “When Were You Happy? (And How Long Has That Been),” with its Richard Thompson-esque guitar filigree and examination of mundane cosmopolitan discontent.
If most of Eagle finds Marling acting as a firebrand, the album’s last few songs come as a note of reconciliation. On “Love Be Brave,” one of the album’s best-written songs with some nice melodic surprises, she sings, “In a world you can’t get lost in, I find my way to him.” “Saved These Words” follows a Bert Jansch-style fingerpicking pattern with its mix of sweet and sour notes. “When your work is over, your day is done / Put down your hammer, into my world come,” she offers at last. Whether or not Marling’s huffy folk music is your brand of gin, it’s hard to deny the markings of such a raw talent. Eagle is a master class in creation.