Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle: Ch-ch-changes and the female voice
by Greta Nash
Around the age of twelve years old, I vividly remember telling my parents proudly that I wasn’t a fan of female singers because I didn’t ‘like how their voices sound.’ This was a time when the first album I had ever truly loved, John Mayer’s CONTINUUM(2006), was on constant repeat on my first generation iPod Nano. ‘I am different,’ I told myself, ‘because the music I listen to is mature and intelligent.’
Spoiler alert: I was not ‘different’. I was a douchebag; I was just missing the fedora. Ten years on, I cringe to think of the pretentious little skin-sack of internalised misogyny I once was. A snobby little kid who’d allowed herself to be convinced that to be feminine, or to embrace femininity, was to be of lesser worth—and in this case, that ‘mature’ and ‘intelligent’ music was synonymous with male music. It was exactly this kind of thinking that caused a six year old girl in a glittery fairy dress to grow into a snobby adolescent, silently scoffing at my makeup-wearing peers and avoiding pink like a fungal disease. (My friends, these are years that I shall never recover; rest in peace.)
Some time passed, as it tends to. One ordinary day, spent at home distracting myself from thought with a steady stream of YouTube videos, I stumbled across Laura Marling. It was one of those live-in-an-alleyway performances, just Marling and her guitar—and a small off-screen crew of indie ‘put a bird on it!’ type folk. I didn’t like it at first, wasn’t sure if it was my thing, and dismissed it pretty quickly. But that video kept popping up and I kept clicking back to it, and returning to hear Marling sing her own words.
Laura Marling is an infuriating talent—26 years old and due to release her 6th studio album in March. For comparison: I am 22, live at home, work in a magazine shop and can’t even drive a car. Meanwhile, her five albums chart an incredible musical and personal growth—but the one I keep coming back to is her fourth, Once I Was An Eagle (2013), released when she was 23.
On my last few hot and humid nights on a trip to Hong Kong, I would play this album repeatedly. I was sleepless, anxious about my impending return after four months of travelling, and terrified to be heading back to an unrecognisable home where things weren’t at all as they were before. No more job, no more uni, no more boyfriend, and no fucking clue what I actually wanted do next. Panic tight at my throat and short of breath, I’d pop in my earphones, thinking that her gentle voice would calm me, as it had used to.
But instead, I lay on my back, wide awake as my eyes formed little splashy paddling pools. The opening of the album still destroys me with its honesty. It’s mean, it’s bitter, it’s resigned – and it makes me achingly sad.
You should be gone beast, be gone from me.
Be gone from my mind at least, let a little lady be.
I don’t want you to want me, wouldn’t want you to know.
I don’t care where you’ve gone, beast, I care where you go.
I have this self-imposed rule about not writing lyrics down in my diary, because I know I’ll groan at the pretentiousness later. Having (hopefully) grown out of that utterly self-unaware phase of posting Coldplay lyrics on my teenage blog, I thought I had learned from my own past. But if you go through my journal from the second half of 2016, you’ll see how often Laura Marling has prompted me to break this rule. Once I Was An Eagle rapidly became something I’d no longer play to fall asleep to, but something to delve into and immerse myself in. Once I had let myself open up to feeling things that I hadn’t had to feel in a long time, the album began to carry a crushing, expansive amount of weight.
The way the first four songs bleed into one another is utterly mesmerising. Slowly, the melancholy of ‘Take The Night Off’ gains a little more bite before transforming into the cynical, beautiful ‘I Was An Eagle’. Marling’s voice soars as she snubs romance over a cacophony of twangy strings. ‘You Know’ follows, breaking it all down, the descending melody taking us deeper, a sense of resignation in her delivery. Slowly, the guitar picks up and energy builds and collapses into ‘Breathe’.
The rest of the album is peppered with incredible songs, though nothing quite tops the opening suite for me, even as ‘Master Hunter’ comes crashing through—a certified banger. If it didn’t have such an aggressive folk sound to it I could imagine my friends and I screaming along to it at karaoke in the vein of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’:
You want a woman cause you want to be saved
Well I’ll tell you that I got a little lot on my plate
Well if you want a woman who can call your name, it ain’t me babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me babe
The second half of the album is calmer overall—in retrospect, if I’d wanted an album to fall asleep to in Hong Kong I should have skipped past the interlude. Yet still, I wouldn’t describe it as easy listening. The depth of Marling’s voice in ‘Love Be Brave’, and particularly her brutally honest words in ‘When Where You Happy? (And How Long Has That Been)’ always grip me unawares—like, ‘Haha! You thought you were just lying there, being lulled by this calm, guitar-folky music. Think again!’
The album, as I’ve described it, sounds incredibly angsty. And I guess it is. But it doesn’t just deliver up a slop of confused emotions on a plate. Everything is tied together in the end, as all the album’s instruments punch at each other underneath this toughened voice, unleashing her revelation:
You weren’t my curse
Thank you naivety for failing me again
He was my next verse.
Everybody deals with ‘change’ in their own way, but these words resonate with me in particular. I think that Laura Marling and I share a similar approach—feel all the feelings, then go make something out of it and move on.
To me, Once I Was An Eagle is a woman wrestling with herself and her emotions, hiding them and twisting them and trying to make some sense out of them. My twelve-year-old-self might call this blasphemy, but John Mayer can shimmy over to the side now, please. Maybe I never related to his music as much as I told myself I did, because it certainly didn’t feel anything like this. In any case, Mayer is no longer the voice I need—Marling is.
Greta is a filmmaker from Melbourne who is enthusiastic about a lot of things, namely dog memes, Eurovision, and villains who drink milk. Stalk her on Instagram @greta_nash