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Laura Marling has always seemed like an old soul. The nu folk singer-songwriter released her debut LP, Alas, I Cannot Swim, at age 18 and its predecessors, I Speak Because I Can and A Creature I Don’t Know in 2010 and 2011 respectively. 4 albums in 5 years makes it easy to forget that the English songstress is just 23 years old, and it’s not just the breadth of Ms Marling’s work that makes you certain you’re listening to someone surely older and wiser. It’s the confidence in her lyrics, the way she can sing “I was a child once” on the track Once and you don’t doubt for a moment that those years are long gone.
Once I Was An Eagle is an examination of love in all of its ugly, exposed glory – a wiser, older sister to A Creature I Don’t Know. Opener Take The Night Off is a smooth introduction with quietly scathing lyrics like “Didn’t ask you to save me / Not when you knew me well / Wouldn’t ask you even to behave for me / I know there’s no helping hell“. The first track segues straight into I Was An Eagle, which follows a similar path, Marling’s solid vocals giving us a tale of regret and anger.
The album get a bit more upbeat with the Americana-tinged first single Master Hunter. It’s a definite highlight of the record, the shaking off of a bad lover set to the soundtrack of a bluesy road trip through Tennessee, with Marling telling her subject, “If you want a woman who will follow your name, it ain’t me, babe“. Marling relocated from her native Hampshire to Los Angeles late last year and there’s a distinct flavour of the ol’ US of A running through many of these tracks. It’s there in the gentle stroll of Once, in which one can picture the singer strumming her guitar on a porch in Texas, and it’s there in the wandering, soaring Pray For Me and its tale of being stuck between God and the devil.
By the time we get to When Were You Happy (And How Long Has That Been?) we meet a more laid-back, introspective Marling in a track that’s reminiscent of Bringing It All Back Home-era Bob Dylan. In Love Be Brave, her thoughts on romance seem to be taking a turn for the better, singing “How does he make love seem sweet?” and by the time we close out with the pretty ballad Little Bird and the soulful Saved These Words, you feel like you’ve run the whole gamut of emotion one could possibly feel for a lover.
Once I Was An Eagle is a long record, but Marling is becoming a master storyteller and you want her to grab your hand and lead you through each and every one of these 16 tracks. A mature release from an artist already wise beyond her years, this is one of the strongest voices of the nu folk movement and it’s just as captivating, if not more so, than the Mumfords and Monsters.