Laura Marling’s new album, Once I Was An Eagle, is that rare pleasure – an album to which you listen all the way through, and then want to start again at the beginning. There are only one or two albums like that a year, for me at least. Fleet Foxes’ debut album was one such. But the sense of a complete work of art is, perhaps, greater here, in that Once I Was An Eagle feels like the working out of a particular idea, musically and emotionally. It is one continuous movement, for which Marling apparently recorded the vocals and guitar in one take (if this is true, it’s a remarkable feat because the album is 16 songs long).
The emotional idea the album explores is, as far as I can tell, whether to be vulnerable in love or whether to be defiant, hard and alone. This may be connected to Marling breaking up with Marcus Mumford, the lead singer of Mumford and Sons. They went out from 2008 to 2010, then broke up, then Mumford married Carry Mulligan last year. Then again, this may be a crude biographical reading.
The first five songs are one continuous movement, all in the same chord and time register, all in the same style. The style reminds me of Qawwali, the ecstatic Sufi music. The songs have the same ascending and descending chord patterns, with a tabla drum accentuating each footstep up or down. Here’s a short film Marling made to accompany the first four songs, which give you a sense of their feel.
Their Qawwali / Sufi feel may come from a trip that Marling and Mumford and Sons took to India in 2010, where they met and recorded with some Rajastani musicians. Both she and Mumford and Sons seem to like exploring the link between Celtic folk ecstasy and Sufi ecstasy.
But these first five songs are far from declarations of spiritual harmony or unity with God. Marling apparently leaves that to Mumford, the good Christian boy (his parents are founders of the Vineyard church’s UK branch). Marling sounds more like a witch, like Circe, a woman scorned who laughs in the darkness, transforms herself into an eagle and says to her former lover, ‘you don’t leave me, I leave you!’ If these early songs are ecstatic, it is an ecstasy of the damned. The songs manage to be both uplifting but also troubling – the witch enjoying the darkness while also longing to come off the heath and find a hearth. The album gets its title from a wonderful line: ‘When we were in love, if we were, I was an eagle, and you were a dove’, which is a wonderful put-down to a Christian ex – though also hints at Marling’s own culpability in the break-up, her remoteness, her pride.
The fifth song, Master Hunter, reminds me of Dylan’s great break-up song, Tangled Up In Blue – Marling even nods to this with the line ‘it ain’t me babe’. It also reminds me a bit of Bjork’s song, Hunter, the video for which shows Bjork transforming herself into an animal like a shamanic witch (Bjork into a bear, Marling into an eagle). Marling and Bjork are both intensely vulnerable somewhat elvish creatures who’ve been a little unlucky in love, and yet who refuse to be victims and who transform themselves into strong almost mythological figures (think of Bjork transforming herself into the Hunter, or Bachelorette, or Isobel, married to herself).
But the transformation Marling achieves seems like a hollow victory. She has pulled back from the risk of love, which she depicts as a sea she nearly drowned in:
I don’t stare at water anymore,
Water doesn’t do what it did before,
It took me in into the edge of insane when I only meant to swim,
I nearly put a bullet in my brain when the water took me in.
She has become hard, separate:
I am a master hunter I cured my skin, now nothing gets in
Nothing not as hard as it tries
After the ‘interlude’ (yes, it’s an old-school album with two sides), things begin to cheer up a bit. In ‘Undine’, which has a country and western feel to it, she becomes a figure watching a beautiful sea-nymph, who is apparently capable of giving herself to the sea of love (‘love in her had not yet died’). The protagonist asks her ‘oh Undine, so sweet and pure, make me more naive’.
The style of the album shifts from here on. She stops looking backwards and looks forwards, asking ‘Where Can I Go?’ and apparently deciding…America! The B Side feels less like a midnight walpurgisnacht and more breezy, more mellow… more Californian in a word. Just to extend my clumsy biographical reading of the album, Marling moved to California recently and seems to enjoy the independence there, the anonymity, and the opportunity to try her hand at love again. ‘Where Can I Go?’ is, to my mind, the only weak song on the album, the only one that sounds a bit commercial and obvious, but maybe I’ll grow to like it.
But the album really returns to form with Pray For Me, in which some of the musical and emotional themes of the A Side – the urge to be alone, the qawwali scales – are returned to and in some way resolved. It’s a really beautiful song, that builds to a peak of strings with Marling crying ‘I can not love, I want to be alone’, and then realising ‘That’s not me a-trying, that’s the Devil and his lying’.
That realisation – that the Devil in her is the self-destructive urge to wall herself off and separate herself from others and from love – reminds me very much of Nathaniel Hawthorne (just to be a bit Lit Crit), who also has this idea that to separate yourself from the flow of humanity is a form of spiritual death.
Well, a fine album all in all and, as I said, it has the feel of a complete work of art, making you want to return to it and figure out how the songs weave together and comment on each other musically and verbally. It’s great that someone in our culture is producing good art (even if she has bunked off to America). And I can’t wait to see her perform at the Secret Cinema gigs later this month.