When I first bought Once I Was an Eagle, it fell a little flat with me. It seemed well crafted but its dark, richly textured mysteriousness and coded-ness seemed to verge on pretention.
It was only after I gave it a few more close listens that it really started to resonate. (I’d contend that this album is best absorbed privately, through headphones.)
It eventually occurred to me that Eagle is solipsistic, but not abstruse. Marling’s gaze is squarely directed inward on this one. None of the songs feel like radio-ready singles, and I think it’s safe to say she wasn’t writing for anyone but herself. She keeps her cards so close to her chest that her language is almost always enigmatic. (“You might not think that I care but you don’t know what I know,” she growls darkly in “I Know.”)
At first glance, Marling seems to be exploring the vulnerability at the center of her defensiveness in love. “Pray For Me” reminded me of all the times I’ve felt like throwing in the towel: “I will not love, I want to be alone!” But I have no doubt that my reading of the album’s emotional impetus will change, and claiming to know what’s in Marling’s heart/head seems futile.
Credit where credit’s due: it seems that the album was as much the brainchild of producer Ethan Johns as it was Laura’s, and I think we have him to thank for its sonic and thematic cohesiveness.
In short, I like it, and I think her exploration of the innermost workings of her heart has yielded some fascinating, if esoteric, stuff. But sometimes I do miss the Laura who sighed girlishly, “And I’m clearing all the crap out of my room, trying desperately to figure out what it is that makes me blue / And I wrote an epic letter to you! / And it’s 22 pages front and back but it’s too good to be used / And I tried to be a girl who likes to be used / But I’m too good for that! There’s a mind under this hat!” Maybe she’ll return to easily accessible work someday, but until then, we mere mortals can only sit and wonder at her meaning.