Image: Photo © Justin Tyler Close. Design © Alex Cowper.
Author: Jonathan Afonso
When it comes to love at first sight, I must confess that I do not have a lot to say about it relationship-wise. However, I remember very clearly the times I fell in love with music; this always strikes me as a very transcendental experience, something that I never quite entirely recover from – which is a very good thing, actually, because what is the point of listening to music if you are not deeply moved by it, if it does not help you think about the world in which you evolve?
Last time I went through such an experience – the falling in love at first sight/hearing – was one year ago (more or less). That morning I woke up, as usual, brushed my teeth, as usual, had breakfast, as usual, and the day seemed as boring/exciting (it all depends on the point of view) as any other one. Nevertheless, as I was standing in that crowded M1 train, stuck between a girl trying to revise her medicine stuff (something about the inner ear, if I remember correctly) and a guy proudly telling his erotic exploits of the weekend (well, he was way cruder about it than I am, but since I am all for subtlety, I will leave it to this), something magical came to my ears. Prior to entering the metro, I had chosen to put all the albums of Laura Marling on shuffle and let my iPod rule it out as it wanted. I had recently been stuck on Marling’s debut album, the 2008 Alas I Cannot Swim, which showed, in a way, Laura Marling’s skilfulness at playing guitar and her talent as a songwriter, but also lacked a bit of maturity, even though one could easily sense that she would eventually come to something majestic if we just gave her some time to grow up (as she was 17 back then); I had decided to buy all her other albums, given the spell that her music seemed to cast on me. And then, at that moment when the metro was crossing its last meters before arriving on the campus, right on that bridge over the motorway, there was Laura Marling fascinating me: “When we were in love, if we were / I was an eagle and you were a dove.” This was sung with Laura’s sweet but determined voice, as if she had seen it all, as if the world had no surprises left for her, as guitars were gently strummed before ferociously engaging in an infinite crescendo. How could I possibly not fall in love with it?
As you can imagine, as soon as I had time, I sat at my desk and let my CD player spin Once I Was an Eagle and deliver its magic. This album is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of British folk music, and this is what I would like to show with this article. Therefore, I will mainly focus on some of the aspects that I find most striking in Once I Was an Eagle, sometimes referring to past Marling’s albums as she uses a lot of the imagery she has already deployed in different albums and refines it. We should first start with the notion that this album is a concept album, that is, an album that is centred on a specific image and builds it up throughout the whole work. As such, this album explores the idea of naivety given that Marling sets a persona who has lost every notion of naivety and seems not to be able to fall in love again. I will argue that this view is not linear in the album, and that we switch from one position (the ‘Master Hunter’ as the title of one song shows) to another one (a more fragile one, where the album’s persona is insecure about her experience, her life and her dealing with love itself) rather frequently, which actually constitutes one of the strengths of the album (because who may say never to have been tormented in love and to have always been clear about they wanted?).
One of the first elements of analysis is the structure of the work itself: it is very well wrought, whilst previous Marling albums were not so much focused on producing that kind of continuity. This 16-track album can easily be divided into two parts: the first one is made of tracks one to seven, whilst the other goes from track nine to sixteen, with track number eight, rightly called ‘Interlude,’ serving to delimitate them. There is also a very clear thematic distinction between the two parts, as the first one consists of various rhythmical pieces, some being more upbeat than the majority, while the second one is mainly made of calm, reflective songs. Nevertheless, it is possible to go even further and to break the first group in two, with the first four tracks being part of a series that is musically linked by the presence of a recursive guitar and drums pattern introduced in diverse ways in each of these tracks. A lot of emphasis was put in these tracks, as Marling played the whole series during unplugged sessions and even had a short film made on them (When Brave Bird Saved). Therefore, analysing them, as well as the following tracks of this first part, provides much of the work’s themes and key-concepts.
The first track of the album, ‘Take the Night Off,’ presents something that could be read as a post-breakup situation. The I-speaker mentions a ‘beast’ that ‘should be gone’: this is a very precise reminder of Laura’s latest album, titled A Creature I Don’t Know, in whose track ‘The Beast’ and the longer eponym web-published poem, Marling calmly claimed that she “chose the beast” and that “tonight he lies with me,” while urging listeners to “put [their] eyes away / If [they] can’t bear to see / [their] old lady lay / Down next to the beast.” We therefore seem to be, at the opening of Once I Was an Eagle, in a situation that has slightly evolved, since the narrator does not want the beast anymore, but on which she does not have complete control. She seems to be saying that she has no interest in love anymore, as she mentions ‘I don’t want you to know me / Wouldn’t want you to know / I don’t care where you’ve gone, beast / I care where you go.’ The second track, ‘I Was an Eagle’ (the one that I fell in love with whilst riding to the university), gives us a sort of snapshot of the relationship the narrator has just been through, although only providing us with hints about it, since, as the NME review pointed out, the album is more concerned about the poetic persona and his/her evolution than the actual events. Marling makes huge statements about naivety, saying that ‘Every little boy is so naïve’ but also that ‘Every little girl is so naïve / Falling in love with the first man that she sees’; she is moreover determined to build her character as someone who ‘will not be a victim of romance / will not be a victim of circumstance / Chance, or circumstance, or romance, or any man / Who could get his dirty little hands on [her],’ as is stated in the chorus. The very depiction that Marling gives of their past relationship also shows how peculiar, if not tormented, it was, as she says that ‘When we were in love, / If we were, / When we were in love, / I was an eagle and you were a dove.’ This last line becomes even more interesting when we compare it to the traditional imagery that is linked to birds in love poetry, where the eagle is often used for the male part of the relationship while a woman is a dove. For example, John Donne in his Canonization glorifies his relationship with his lover by saying that ‘… we in us find the eagle and the dove. / The phoenix riddle hath more wit / By us; we two being one, are it’: their love is so strong that gender distinctions do not matter anymore, they form only one being. On the contrary, Marling specifies and delineates this dichotomy, and even goes further as she inverses gender roles: she is the eagle, whilst her lover is merely the dove. Marling ends the track, lyrically speaking, by saying that ‘I was an eagle and I rose above you / And preyed,’ thus giving an even more striking statement on her previous relationship, making it a scene of hunting.
Tracks three and four, respectively ‘You Know’ and ‘Breathe,’ keep on building this blurred image of an odd relationship. On one track, the narrative character mentions incomprehension on both parts and signs the death of their relationship by saying that ‘We were a pair once / Of oh such despair once / We were a child then I’m sure / But if we were a child then we are children / No more,’ and on the other one, the I-speaker’s symbolic attempts to make up for this messed up relationship are all crushed down to nothing, as she says that ‘[She] wrote [her lover] a book but … left it out in the rain / Left it there to dry but it got rained on once again’ and mentions ‘Us of constant banging throwing fists against the wall’ as well as ‘How cruel you are to me / How cruel time can be / How cruel I was to you / How cruel things I do.’ Therefore it comes as no surprise that track five, ‘Master Hunter,’ closely connected to this series we have been analysing helps to build this narrative persona as a strong woman who knows what she wants after a relationship that has left nothing but wonder. ‘Master Hunter’ is by far the most upbeat track of the album, with its structure being mainly led by a ferocious guitar, and the lyrics are as fierce as the music. Marling boldly begins by saying that ‘[She is] a master hunter / [She] cured [her] skin / And nothing gets in / Nothing not as hard as it tries,’ and later on defines this idea of independence against relationships: ‘You want a woman ‘cause you wanna be safe / Well I tell you that I’ve got a little lot on my plate / You want a woman who’ll call your name / It ain’t me babe’ and even ends the song’s bridge with ‘Wrestling the rope from darkness is no fucking life that I would choose.’
This image of a strong and independent woman is however counterbalanced by the following track, ‘Little Love Caster.’ Although Marling starts by affirming again that ‘Yes, I am a master / I have you bad man,’ it now seems that she wants to reassure herself, as the tone of the song is definitely more stripped down (by now the huge chorus and violence of the guitar has turned into a sweet, precise and toned down tune). The speaker goes on and uses conditionals which may show that not everything (whatever it is that she wanted to do) went according to plan, seeing that she mentions that ‘[She] would take [him] home / [She] would take [him] home and then / [Their] love spell will end.’ More importantly, the narrator clearly says that ‘You are new to me / You are new to me / I can’t seem to say / “I’d like you to say”,’ showing how she is torn between what she wants to show the world – that she is a master – and what she may want deep down under – to find true love, something that she cannot achieve for a reason that is unknown to us listeners. This situation is again nuanced by track seven, ‘Devil’s Resting Place,’ in which Marling returns to an imagery worthy of her previously mentioned third album. In this song, the poetic persona tells her lover how she is back to the devil’s side and the power it gives back to her: ‘Come up here to speak to me and hold your face to mine / Any man can hold my gaze has done his job just fine / You just sold your life away to be with me tonight / Hold your head against my chest, I think you’ll be just fine.’
The first half of the album gives enough material for analysis and is so dense that some reviews have noted how ‘poor’ the second part is – or at least, how it does not keep up with expectations set during this first part. I would say that such a judgement is a bad thing, given that the second part of the album has its jewels that should not be left apart and that it, in a way, focuses on the narrator achieving her journey back to naivety and love (but does she ever succeed actually?). This idea is clear from the very first track of the second part, on which Marling’s character goes after ‘Undine,’ since she has heard that ‘if you saw her, / She would make you more naïve,’ finally begging the divinity ‘Oh Undine, so sweet and pure, make me more naïve / Oh Undine, sing your love to me.’ The quest also becomes more spiritual with the track ‘Pray for Me,’ and Pitchfork’s Rachael Maddux could not be more right when she notes that the “preying” of ‘I Was an Eagle’ has now become “praying.” The quest is not linear, again, as Marling often goes back to previous statements, saying that ‘Once is enough to break you / Once is enough to make you think twice / About laying your love out on the line,’ lines that show how hurt she was by her previous experience(s), or even acknowledging that ‘the more I think / The harder it is for me to breathe.’
The album ends on a very cathartic note with ‘Saved These Words,’ a track that does however not entirely resolve everything that has been brought up in the album. The song begins with a guitar riff, slowly building the melody, and, after a strummed bridge, finally moves to a very moving and even almost hyperbolic pipes section, when compared to the calmness and sparseness of the latest tracks. The lyrics tend to a sense of completion, as they state ‘When your work is over / And your day is done / Put down your hammer / Into my world come.’ It thus seems that there is no master hunter anymore, given that ‘Life is heavy / When you’re no master’s son / When you’re ready / Into my arms come.’ The bridge and subsequent chorus is however more revealing. The lines go as follow: ‘Should you choose, / Should you choose / To love anyone, anytime soon / Then I saved these words for you.’ There is a very clear sense of moving on here, but also of reflecting about past relationships with a healed mind, as Marling goes on singing that ‘You weren’t my curse, / You weren’t my curse / Thank you naivety / For failing me again / He was my next verse.’ This is however very problematic: some tracks have made the listeners think that the speaker was looking for her naivety, which she had lost, but now she is thanking naivety for having let her down, because, otherwise, she could not have realised that her relationship was what made her move on and understand life, or simply how she works. The last line can also be read in a way that is completely related to Marling’s life, since she often writes about her, or anyone else’s (failed) love stories that become her ‘next verse.’
At the end of the album, it is very hard to say what Marling has achieved anything if we think of a naivety/experience dichotomy only. It seems to me that the narrator has clearly evolved: her goal seems to have been to look for her lost ingenuity, which would allow her to love again, but as she went on and thought about what had happened to her and how she wanted to define herself (as a master hunter, an eagle, or a dove, a little love caster), she has actually understood that there was another way of dealing with love, something that stood between the Manichaeism that she had imposed on herself (and on us listeners too).
This already lengthy article does not cover the whole of the album, as I think that I could write pages and pages about it without feeling the need to stop for thinking about it or gather other resource. I truly think that this album is a masterpiece and that anyone who likes British contemporary folk music should have a listen to it – I hope that this article may help you go through the whole of it, but that you can also build your own reflection on the album, as it is so full of references, both external (there is some Bob Dylan in that ‘It ain’t me babe’ line, some Joni Mitchell as well, etc.) and internal (is any of the album’s character a reference to Marcus Mumford or Noah & The Whale’s Charlie Fink, both of whom Laura used to date?) – well, there is definitely lots to think about when Marling’s career is considered, and we should definitely not stop here.