Marling's fourth album is tall galoshes against the rising tide of the most irritating industry norm going, the one that requires female singer-songwriters to ingratiate themselves with the attractiveness of their personality.
Once I Was an Eagle is challenging, cold-eyed, disdainful, unamusing. It is not winsome, charming or fun. Marling does not play ball. But what is the nature of her game? We know that she is young, talented, self-involved and produced by Ethan Johns to sound as if 1960s counter-culture America were in her like breath. Her references to, say, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens and Bob Dylan vary in overtness but are always observably manifest because they are built into her sound. And when she goes off on one creatively, as she does with the elided first five songs (a slow crescendo of modal shifts and scrubbed guitars), the effort to transcend those references becomes the subject of what is heard, rather than Marling's poetry.
Which may, of course, be a good thing. The rest of the album is more conventional in its structure: intimate sketches of selfhood, eked out with rubato pickings and scrapings and biffs. It's often interesting but always achingly mannered.
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