By now, Laura Marling must know exactly how her albums will be received. There’s a routine. First, people will marvel anew about her age (23, now); no matter how far she drifts from youth, she will be forever young, and she will sound forever old, and if she’s lucky maybe the gap will close by the time she reaches Joni Mitchell’s age circa Blue. Joni will be mentioned, as will Bob Dylan and possibly a third folkie, maybe Sandy Denny or Mumford and Sons depending on how forever-young the writer’s folk chops are. Mumford and Sons will be mentioned for sure, filling in for remember-whos Noah and the Whale: the beardie folkie ex-boyfriends (Marling dated Marcus Mumford last year) of the same scene, if not quite the same sound. Everyone will agree she’s frighteningly talented, a consummate professional. They will admire her craft. And they will leave it there.
Most of the early press for Once I Was An Eagle, Marling’s fourth album, has left it there. To be fair, she acknowledges, even encourages this sort of response: doing her snappingest Dylan on single “Master Hunter” while lifting “It Ain’t Me Babe”’s refrain, as if to say that yes, she knows who she’s emulating; repeating “I am a master, I am a master,” on that same single, with more and more sarcasm every time; dropping the wry anecdote into “You Know” that “[you] asked me once if I was a child once; I said I’m really not sure”; muttering about “hippies stomp[ing] empty-footed upon all that’s good [and] pure of the world,” which would make a killer subtweet. (It’s startling to realize just how much of this she does. “Master Hunter” has a line where Marling calls out a dude accusing her of seeking out the romantic blues, which I’m pretty sure I read in one of The Guardian’s comments sections.) It’s also a response familiar in Marling’s chosen genre. Folk artists run into two kinds of criticism nowadays: being accused, like the Lumineers, of being merely sturm und twang, empty revivalism — a reprise, with more banjos, of the scorn lobbed at arena-rock acts like Coldplay and U2. Or what Marling gets: hearing folk music as something tasteful and genteel with tasteful, genteel elders to emulate. Music for coffeeshops and museums and mediated emotions, to admire rather than love. With an album like Once I Was an Eagle it’s all the more tempting; but stopping here does Marling a disservice.
Once I Was an Eagle is, at heart, a character study. It’s best to think in those terms — Marling, like most female musicians used to fielding dating questions while trying to talk music, is cagey about her love life. Half these songs sound twice as lacerating when you imagine a Mumford on the other end, but it ain’t he, babe. But there is a character: a woman. She may or may not be Laura Marling, but either way she’s the precise opposite of Marling’s image — not wilting, not waifish, not inclined to stage fright. She’s the precise opposite of Marling’s name, even; she may be called Laura Beatrice, but she has no kindness for any Petrarchs or Dantes. Not that Once I Was an Eagle is a breakup album, per se, though people do get broken. Nor is it concerned with empowerment or girl power. Those are too celebratory, too simplistic.
What Once I Was an Eagle reminds me of, instead, is an Margaret Atwood or Aimee Bender story, perhaps, with a heroine more wounded, more cruel, more complicated. “I don’t love, I just lie,” Marling sings, meaning both sex and deceit. There are at least twenty lines like this. She wants to love, but can’t. She is prickly, predatory. When she calls herself an eagle, she means the talons. She is confessional, to use the cliché, but confesses nothing; her character is hard to know even by the standards of a songwriter whose last album’s kiss-off single accused a man, cagily, of “whatever it was you did that day,” which she’ll never tell. She’ll draw you in, murmur alluring sounds; but within seconds that’ll become a smug snarl, a victory pose of a sound, then that too will crumble into a defeated sigh. She has a lot of one-night stands, and she’s the one who doesn’t call — or if she does, it’s to plead with the men to tell her something she doesn’t know, do anything the others didn’t, or failing that, forget her. She leaves, and she leaves them for dead; and yet somehow, through all of this, she is supposed to love. Marling’s explored these themes before, but never so starkly. “New Romantic,” one of her earliest songs, declared “I will never love a man,” but next to Lily Allenisms about pulling another girl’s man and feeling really mean it comes off — oddly for Marling — immature. Alas I Cannot Swim closer “Your Only Doll” approaches this frustration, but lines like “sexual being, human with feelings — the two are not me” are best explained by Marling writing them as a teenager. And these songs are outliers. Marling, on Alas I Cannot Swim, is a girl who stayed up all night to wage psychic war against her boyfriend’s night terrors; on Once I Was an Eagle, she no longer will — or can.
Take the single, “Master Hunter.” It’s a spellbinding, frightening piece of work, a thresher of percussion and guitar that sounds faster and faster each replay. Marling sings either steely, as prepared as a chessmaster, or like she’s half-snapping at your neck. More than anything, it reminds me of Fiona Apple’s harrowing “Left Alone” from last year’s The Idler Wheel; instead of Apple’s cabaret-Pagliacci act, Marling has blasé contempt, but the idea’s the same: she can love the same man in the same bed in the same city but not in the same room, it’s a pity. On the album, it gives way to “Little Love Caster” and wilts. The title’s like something Justin Timberlake might think up to court a girl into magick, but the song’s anything but courting: a pitiless guitar-and-cello requiem, the sound of Marling waking up first on the morning after, sizing up her conquest and feeling a bit queasy, lamenting what she’s about to do. “Master Hunter” is bracing enough on its own; “Little Love Caster” turns it tragic.
Moments like these are why I Was an Eagle is meant to be heard as an album. Guitar riffs slip in and out; tracks reprise each other. Characters are introduced and re-introduced, usually heartbroken. Marling, by now, has developed her own mythology, rooted both in classical stories (“Master Hunter” alludes to Artemis; Undine, a water sprite, shows up on one track, as does the devil) and in her own work. (The line “I don’t stare at water anymore,” for one, is a bit twee but devastating if you’ve memorized “Alas I Cannot Swim.”) She knows tradition — she’s got her own ambiguous murder ballad (“Undine”), her hymnish track (“Devil’s Resting Place”), her pastoral lilt (“When Were You Happy (And How Long Has That Been?”) She tries to save her younger self (“Undine” again), prays for naivety, has that prayer backfire, warns a lover sinuously that she’s had a night with the devil then talks about those couple weird weeks when she thought the devil had her, moves across the ocean and finds herself more or less the same. It’s an album meant to be heard as a journey that leads nowhere.
More or less. There is exactly one song that will make sense as straightforward folk without all the woman’s soul-searching. (Two, if you count “When Were You Happy (And How Long Has That Been),” whose lyrics are just close enough to the sort of back-to-the-earth hippieness that sells — but it’s a good song.) “Saved These Words,” the closer, plays a typical Marling trick: starting quiet, growing rollicking. It sounds happy, finally. You could stomp to it or fill an arena. And you might read love or fulfillment into words like “when you’re ready, into my arms, come” or “Love’s not easy, not always fun, words are sleazy — my love is better done,” especially after the comparatively upbeat “Love Be Brave,” where Marling flat-out says she’s changed. But then you might remember the track right after that, “Little Bird,” which is decidedly less hopeful, or how she then says “Thank you, naivety, for failing me again!” as if throwing up her hands, or how that final “I saved these words for you!” is half-shouted, like an accusation, or how she’s still going on about masters. “He was my next verse,” Marling sings toward the end. It’s either an act of love or her character’s last lie — and which, she’ll never tell.