Questions mark the new master work from Laura Marling, the English rose and brainy, beguiling neo-folkie. What confirms existence? What guitar tuning is she using? And is that a Bob Dylan quote?
Don’t expect Marling to be your answerer, though – that ain’t her, babe. Her 16-song, 63-minute album is set to the sound of why.
When Marling began writing this, her fourth album, she was heavy into a U.S. schedule to promote the one that came before, the moody, sublimely wrought A Creature I Don’t Know. “All I see is road,” she sings on the new, dusky, southern-styled Where Can I Go?, “No one takes me home.”
Once I Was an Eagle was inspired by Marling’s move from London to Los Angeles, where she scoured vinyl shops for the sounds of Judy Collins and 1969. She dropped her band – she is performing solo on her current tour – and wrote the album without much collaboration. The record was eventually recorded in the pastoral English studio of her regular producer and instrumentalist Ethan Johns, with help from her friend and cellist Ruth de Turberville.
It’s a conceptual acoustic album. As Marling has explained it, “It follows a central character wandering through a grey landscape, and all the while she’s followed by this silent bird.” The avian theme symbolizes freedom and has to do with a metamorphosis – eagle to dove, apparently.
The album’s first group of similar songs merge for a suite, with a droning effect achieved by use of an open-tuned guitar. The stark, dynamic I Was an Eagle has a freak-folk percussive element to it. Lyrically, I hear the rawness and penetrating observations of Mitchell or the Maritime songstress Amelia Curran: “Today I will feel something other than regret / Pass me a glass and a half-smoked cigarette / I’ve damn near got no dignity left.”
Her voice? Imagine Melanie, but with her brand new pair of roller skates stolen off her feet. Or Heart’s Ann Wilson, with her dog shot and her butterflies captured. Master Hunter is heavy and bluesy and without nonsense.
The penultimate track Little Bird has guitar passages naggingly similar to Jose Feliciano, as well as an ornithological Paul McCartney, whose Blackbird sang in the dead of night and whose challenge it was to take its broken wings and learn to fly.
Marling herself asks, “Is it spring, do I sing?” It might be the album’s only question answered.
Laura Marling plays 99 Sudbury in Toronto on May 25.
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