Laura Marling always had an epic in her. Even from her earliest teenage recordings, such as her 2008 debut, "Alas, I Cannot Swim," her songs had the stuff of myths — suicide, revenge, impossible love. With "Once I Was an Eagle," she's finally made a record that matches the magnitude of her vision, and puts her well ahead of almost any twentysomething singer-songwriter peer working today.
The early word on "Eagle" is that Marling recorded the bulk of the album's vocal and guitar parts in a single day. That's a neat talking point, but all it really suggests is that these songs arrived so fully formed in her mind that it took only a few takes apiece to nail them. She's drinking deep from Nick Drake's and John Fahey's open drop-tunings on openers Take the Night Off" and "I Was an Eagle," and summons just enough young audacity to borrow Bob Dylan's poison-pen chorus from "It Ain't Me, Babe" on "Master Hunter."
Marling is probably bored of the comparison, but never before has a Joni Mitchell reference seemed so apt. Not just in her old-soul lyricism, but also in the liquid acoustic drones and gentle exotica in her production. This record would have set a wildfire in Laurel Canyon in the '70s. But it's also very English in all the best ways — a mix of adventure and reserve, conservative in form but so generous in its honesty and imagery. "Damn all those hippies who stomp empty footed upon all what's good all what's pure of the world," she sings on "You Know." She's no lady of the canyon, but these songs already feel as timeless as the hills.
"Once I Was an Eagle"
Three stars (out of four)Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times