Even in a career already marked by unusual precocity, Once I Was an Eagle is an extraordinary achievement, the kind of album that both summarises the first stage of Laura Marling's creative life and, one suspects, pushes off into the next stage.
It's the most mature exposition yet of her recurring theme, the examination of turbulent emotional terrain, undertaken with an unflinching honesty that rejects the commonplace clichés of predator and victim in favour of a subtler analysis of the forces operating on a relationship. "When we were in love, I was an eagle and you were a dove," she reflects at one point; at another, "I wish I had told you then where my kindness ends"; and in the trenchant "Master Hunter", reveals her calloused heart, cauterised by experience: "I cured my skin, now nothing gets in."
Despite appearances, this is no delicate prey. By the end of a song cycle that shifts gradually from anger and frustration to regret and acceptance, her inner artist has kicked in, raking through the ruins for new material: "You weren't my curse/Thank you naïveté for failing me again/He was my next verse."
As well as her most lyrically mature work, it's also the most musically satisfying. Marling and producer Ethan Johns have opted for a sparse uniformity of guitars, hand percussion and cello that finds its most complete realisation in the 16-minute song sequence that opens the album, its four songs segued together along an unspooling thread of guitar figures and drones that in places takes on a modal, Eastern character.
The effect is an almost hypnotic immersion in the songs as they drag the listener deeper into the emotional entanglement, never allowing respite. When the sequence ends, it's as if one's locked into the mindset, seeking resolution alongside the singer for the rest of the journey.
For as with recent releases from The National, Eels, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and David Bowie, Once I Was an Eagle is a work that demands to be taken as a whole, another reminder of the peculiar power of the album form, despite frequent premature declarations of its redundancy.
Download: Take the Night Off; Breathe; Master Hunter; Little Love Caster; When Were You Happy ? (And How Long Has That Been)