Ms. Marling has established herself as one of the strongest songwriters of this generation since her second album (“I speak because I can”). Her debut “Alas, I cannot swim” is an incredibly strong debut, especially given her age at that time but for me only through her second album I could hear her voice as an artist, that was different from the wave of folksy songwriters at that time (2008 was flooded by them).
Marling is incredibly productive, I like to compare her to Mumford & Songs because they grew out of the London folk scene (alongside Noah and the Whale) at the same time and because Ms. Marling at one point was romantically involved with Marcus Mumford. However, Mumford & Sons have released two albums since then, probably hindered by their numerous world tours and insane commercial success, whereas Marling has now released her fourth album and shows yet another side of her beautiful story-telling and musical diversity. Where Marcus Mumford has a conviction in his voice that makes it hard to not at least respect the sincerity of his band, Marling has that and the drive to dive into different musical directions, to recreate herself with every single album, to create an environment that is familiar in its warmth but also bold and adventurous in the use of instruments, themes and a general atmosphere. As much as I wanted to, I was not in love with the quite formulaic “Babel” but I can fall in love with “Once I was an Eagle”.
“Once I was an Eagle” starts with an Indian-inspired frame that flows into the first couple of songs, therefore taking you on a journey. For me, many of her songs are about traveling, yearning, wondering which way to go, the dream of being on the road and a constant desire to never stand still. It’s difficult not to wonder over the perfectionism that runs through the album. Marling continuously works on her voice, plays with it, mirrors it with her instruments and never rests. Her lyrics grow as much as the layers of instruments that feel like a shadow puppet-theater.
After the first wave of songs that need to be listened together, “Master Hunter” reminds of the Americana-sound she adapted on her previous album “A Creature I don’t know” but soon turns back to the influences of the East, reminding a little of bands like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones when they discovered the richness of the musical tradition in India but in Marling’s case, we see it through the lens of folk instead of Rock. Marling, together with Mumford and Sons, worked on music with the Dharohar Project in 2010, so this is not a new venture but maybe an Echo of that time or an idea that took a little longer to come to fruition.
However, in contrast to her last two albums, this one is very long (16 songs, ladies and gentlemen, I think that’s pretty much a double record) and the different genres throughout the album (“Where can I go”, for example is a traveling priest’s hymn to the choir) make it less of a one-piece album then more of a quilt that comes in groups of songs that are sown together through her voice and guitar. Even though there isn’t really one song I could see on the cutting floor, I wonder whether a tighter record and an additional EP would have worked better, giving the Eastern influences the main attraction on the album and therefore giving it a more defined sound. However, the last songs on the album turn into impressive and beyond beautiful guitar-pieces, so I won’t complain too much.
As with every artist that has racked up most critics’ love, people start hating on her already, I call this the “Pitchfork”-effect, which is to bash something that a lot of people like just for the hell of it (this is why we can’t have nice things, by the way). But given that – I hate to bring up her age but for everyone who goes hog-wild whenever someone calls her equal to Joni Mitchell – she is 23 and already shows enough musical sensibility for songs like “Pray For Me”, she would have to release a Eurotrash-Dancepop-album featuring Lil Wayne to keep me from calling her “one of the strongest songwriters of this generation”. I will love songs like “When were you happy” and if she references musicians that are apparently so much better than her, then the only thing I’d like to know is who, so I can listen to them and whether they wrote their music in a vacuum (the latter was a rhetorical question, the first one was an actual question).