Laura Marling is a folk singer, but she's not a "folk singer" in the way that classification can seem vaguely derogatory. Her music is not self-consciously rootsy and cozy, and it's not made to be wholesome, inoffensive background music for a coffeehouse. She belongs to the same cohort of young English folk artists as Mumford & Sons and Noah and the Whale, but she has almost nothing in common with their commercial, shout-and-stomp style of folk music, favoring instead a sophisticated approach to melody, rhythm, and lyricism more in line with Joni Mitchell in her prime, or English folk-psychedelia acts like Fairport Convention and Pentangle.
Marling has been making albums since she was a teenager and has been rightly praised as a virtuoso talent since her debut, but her fourth record, Once I Was An Eagle, is where she makes good on the promise of her earlier work. It's a hugely ambitious album – the first quarter of it is an extended suite, and instrumental and lyrical motifs carry on through its final track. When heard as a whole, Once I Was An Eagle sounds sort of like a ritual in which Marling confronts messy, agonizing questions about life and love; dissects her illusions; and ultimately moves on. There's a flood of painful emotions throughout the record, but there's also a tremendous sense of calm and mindfulness. She doesn't sound like someone trying to rid herself of dark feelings, but more like a person who is aware of everything she is thinking and is putting it all in perspective. Through the record, chaotic emotions and scattered thoughts gradually approach a state of equilibrium, if not total order.
Once I Was An Eagle is marvel of audio engineering. There's nothing especially fancy about the way Ethan Johns recorded it – it's mostly just well-placed microphones recording live performances direct to tape with only natural reverb – but it's ideal for Marling's music. Johns' production work makes you very aware of every motion, impact, and vibration; you feel as though you're in the room as they play. This approach emphasizes the intimate quality of her songs, but more importantly, it focuses attention on the physicality of her performance. A lesser producer would leave these songs feeling too "pretty" or soften its edges, but Johns allows for moments that feel violent and raw, even on the record's softest, most delicate tracks. A lot of what makes this music so potent lies in the way Johns' production and Marling's live performances lend a sense of palpable urgency to music that is often quiet and meditative. Even after many, many listens, the recordings still feel a bit unpredictable.
Marling's music is incredibly sophisticated for someone who is just 23, but it's especially hard to imagine that someone so young sings with such an adult voice. Her vocal style betrays no trace of her youth; her phrasing – often strikingly similar to that of Joni Mitchell – has the rich yet weathered quality of someone twice her age. She's particularly good with inflection, and gives her lyrics a great deal of subtext with the slightest nuances. "Master Hunter," the album's first proper single, is a showcase for this strength: she shifts effortlessly from aggressive utterances to coy flirtation, and hardened declarations to fleeting moments of empathy. (Or is it pity?) It's the most brutal song on the album – she's claiming power for herself and cutting off her relationship with a selfish, depressed lover. She casts him away after concluding that "wrestling the rope from darkness is no fucking life that I would choose," and she essentially spends the remainder of the album searching for (and eventually finding) a better way to live.