“Take the night off and be bad for me,” croons Laura Marling on the opening track of Once I Was An Eagle, starting off what can only be described as an achingly small album of epic proportions. Following the course of the emotional toil after a bad relationship, Marling, the British folk-rock darling, puts a brittle, urgent edge on the classic idea of the break-up album. Marling reportedly recorded the whole album in 10 days, taking only one day to record all of her vocals and guitar parts. As if the concept of the album wasn’t clear enough, Marling also wrote the album in three tunings, which mark the basic changes in emotional state throughout the album: from the bad relationship itself to the emotional fallout of the break-up and the final stage of moving on.
The first four songs flow into one another and create a mini-vignette documenting the collapse of the relationship, linked together by a similarly aggressive guitar line, which also makes an appearance again at the end of the album. The shining star of the album, the quasi-title track “I Was An Eagle,” stands out amongst the four, as Marling’s character begins to harden herself to the idea of love. “I will not be a victim of romance,” she commands. “When we were in love, if we were/I was an eagle and you were a dove.” Her vocals soar on the track, giving the ever-desired goose-bump effect. Marling has an aged quality to her voice that exudes a perfect balance of both confidence and fragility, making every emotion she expresses feel incredibly real and true. There is rage there, but it’s contained and well thought-out. It’s simple and effective. It’s brilliant.
As the album progresses, Marling’s character begins to shut down emotionally. “I can’t seem to say I’d like you to say,” she sighs on “Little Love Caster,” unable to get past her previous pains and open her heart to new love. Haunting Spanish guitars hover over this track, swooping in and out in time with Marling’s voice, dancing between falsetto and the lowest ranges of her register. The instrumental interlude marks the tonal change in the album. A little off-kilter in it’s blurred out, repetitive minor lines, the interlude feels like part of a score to a silent film when the female lead is in some sort of peril. She may be tied to the train tracks, but at this point in the album, our heroine is only relying on herself to get out of danger.
A much more up-beat second half sees Marling’s character begin to slowly open up as a new love interest enters the picture, until she reaches the point where things begin to feel normal again. “Thank you, naivety, for failing me again/He was my next verse,” she sings on the final song, “Saved These Words.” The lyrics are delivered over a similar version of the repeated guitar melody on the first four tracks, literally bringing the album full circle.
Once I Was an Eagle verbalizes pain, hatred, and recouping in the most beautiful and affecting way. Unlike a lot of Marling’s earlier catalogue, Once I Was An Eagle is not over-laden with metaphor; things feel much more direct and visceral without sacrificing any of the graceful intricacies of her older work. Everything feels full and complete, with each song taking a life of it’s own, while still contributing equally as much to the larger concept. Remove one song and the big picture will surely suffer. The idea of break-up album is nothing new and it’s surely not going anywhere—not with the Taylor Swifts and Adeles of the world sharing their pain in arenas all over the world. But, somehow, Marling makes her album feel more intimate and special than the rest.