Laura Marling just might be an angel, or the closest thing that contemporary music has to one. If you watch footage of her live concerts, whether taking place in a field, a cathedral, or an intimate pub, you'll see a throng of rapt devotees, their faces as placid and focused as those of pilgrims, the occasional mouth shaping a lyric. Gracing the stage is Marling's almost preternaturally composed figure, staring straight ahead under pale bangs while deftly fingerpicking through a complex, multivalent composition.
At 23, the British singer-songwriter's precocious talent and ethereal stage presence intrigued fans and critics from the start, yet obvious comparisons to Joni Mitchell have provoked reservations about her ability to evolve away from her parents' record collection. But each album since her debut, Alas I Cannot Swim, has demonstrated that Marling has her own musical consciousness, that she can dip in and out of the folk canon without relying too heavily on its inherited tropes. While Mumford & Sons, for example, seem content to beat rootsy cadences, air-tight harmonies, and conventionally self-conscious lyrics into our heads, Marling individualizes the acoustic template with unsettling chord structures, imagery drawn from mythology and zoology, and the occasional eruption that shocks when coming from such a self-composed vocalist: "I nearly put a bullet in my brain when the rhythm took me in."
On Once I Was an Eagle, Marling shakes off the banjos, mandolins, and harmonies that complemented her voice on earlier efforts, substituting cello arrangements and a handful of robust organ lines, most notably on the uptempo "Where Can I Go?," which layers instruments and ups the volume with each chorus like a well-crafted Emmylou Harris number. Having moved from London to Los Angeles after recording the album, Marling seems poised at the edge of a massive transition, seduced by open highways and vast bodies of water. On "Where Can I Go?," she admits, "All I see is road/No one takes me home," and on "When Were You Happy? (And How Long Has That Been)," she muses, "Wouldn't it be a thing to live somewhere quietly/Where there's a breeze and there's a reason for us to be?" The spaces Marling explores seem worlds away from the urban pubs and clubs where she got her start.
With a few exceptions, Marling wraps autobiographical references in figurative or mythological camouflage: She becomes a forest predator on "Master Hunter" and a presumably male lover trying to resist the call of a sea nymph in "Undine." Themes explored in her previous albums—childhood, water, self-protection—resurface here, yet the compositions are far more intricate, her classically influenced fingerpicking replacing steady strumming; comparisons to Mitchell finally seem off the mark, as Marling relies less on the swift falsetto trills that characterize her predecessor's sound, settling instead into her rich, steady lower register with sparser, well-considered upward breaks.
For a performer with such angelic qualities, the Marling of Once I Was an Eagle seems to have spent a good deal of time with the devil: Songs such as "Devil's Resting Place" and "Pray for Me" confess to having fallen under his influence. In the hands of other latter-day murder balladeers, such as Nick Cave and Jack White, "Devil's Resting Place" might have been a harder-rocking production complete with vocal snarls and showy guitar licks, but Marling's arrangement is all the spookier for the sly composure of her vocal delivery and the steady patter of hand drums that drives the song without sacrificing restraint. This particular song is the first to break, rhythmically and instrumentally, from the six-song suite that opens the album: The first five tracks, from "Take the Night Off" through "Master Hunter," are built around a common guitar figure and line of romantic inquiry, while the next song, "Little Love Caster," speaks back to "Master Hunter" almost as if the pair are two versions of the same song. For its cohesive tone and the ease with which it plumbs the darkest recesses of Marling's consciousness, Once I Was an Eagle is close to a masterpiece, a heavenly composition with just enough hell to keep things from feeling too familiar.