According to European folklore, Undine (or, sometimes, “Ondine”) is a water nymph fated to lose her immortality and gain a soul when she falls in love with a man. Depending on the version of the story, the mortal Undine is stripped of her rebellious nature and becomes a devoted wife, or is cheated on by her husband and curses him to eternal wakefulness, or is forsaken by her husband, embraces him until he dies, and forever encircles him as a magical spring. The turning point on Laura Marling’s fourth album comes with a plea for Undine to “make me more naïve”. With the song “Undine”, she signals a lyrical and musical shift that helps make Once I Was an Eagle the English songwriter’s most ambitious and impressive release.
That Undine carries this contradictory history of tranquility and vengeance, domesticity as both gift and curse hardly seems a coincidence, even as Marling’s Undine is invoked specifically as a cure for cynicism. One of the best things about Marling’s music is its refusal to play simplistic blame games with relationships; culpabilities shift, the overall feeling of romantic failure and distance is favored over specifics. Contradictions are built into her songs — throughout her 2011 album, A Creature I Don’t Know, as well as this one, she frames the devil’s corrupting touch as both weakness and strength. “Tonight I choose the beast, tonight he lies with me” was a confession and a warning, but sung like a point of pride.
In the bleak, intense first half of Once I Was an Eagle, the devil has run of the place, down to Marling’s guitar work. In one of several alternate tunings on the album, open strings drone ominously, and Marling makes like Jimmy Page in acoustic mode, strumming and picking her way through Middle Eastern and Celtic folk with touches of the blues. The four-song suite that opens the album (and that soundtracks the short film “When Brave Bird Saved”) begins with “Take the Night Off”, a gentle negotiation with the beast, and ends with “Breathe”, where mutual cruelties are reviewed in the wake of a bad breakup due to beastly tendencies on both sides. Throughout the first seven songs, love is predatory. The ex-lover in “I Was an Eagle” damns the naïveté of young girls, resolving to not be a victim of “chance or circumstance or any man who could get his dirty little hands on me”, but ultimately turns the blame on herself — her man was a dove, and she an eagle, who “rose above you and preyed”. With a wiry strength and a Zep-blues riff that turns over and over, “Master Hunter” makes a claim for emotional guardedness on the cellular level: “I cured my skin / Now nothing gets in / Nothing as hard as it tries.”
To the extent that it concludes with yet another night with the beast in “The Devil’s Resting Place”, the first half of Once I Was an Eagle is effectively a sequel to A Creature I Don’t Know, the heroine rendered tough and isolated by experience. Considering the level of the songwriting and Marling’s fiery performances — she recorded her vocals and guitar parts live in single takes — this would be impressive enough. But her best trick comes in dedicating most of the second half to casting off the emotional armor and coming to terms with the beast.
After an instrumental interlude (yes, at over an hour, this is the type of album that benefits from an intermission), Marling makes an extended case for vulnerability and details the struggle to recover it. Where the wisdom of Sophia was the ideal on A Creature I Don’t Know, it’s the openness of Undine that’s the best bet for salvation here. “It’s just about a woman with her clothes on,” she sings on “Where Can I Go?” “You take them off, and she’s a girl.” The music also opens up. The doom of those drone notes and blues riffs makes way for strummy, sunny Laurel Canyon folk-pop and lovely ascending patterns. To highlight the shift, producer Ethan Johns, who provides most of the backup instrumentation, switches out his tablas and hurdy gurdy for Hammond organ. That is not to say the drama drains out after the shift. “Pray for Me” is a direct attempt to get past the barriers the beast has put in place: “I will not love / I want to be alone. / That’s not me from a-trying / That’s the devil and his lying.” And even by the last song, “Saved These Words”, which fuses the Eastern tonalities and tabla of the first half of the album and brighter tone of the second into a Jeff Buckley-esque slow-builder, Marling advises a potential lover that “Love’s not easy / Not always fun / And words are sleazy / My love is better done.”
Four albums in, and it’s only with her previous album that the narrative surrounding Marling became less about her early start and more about the astounding speed at which she’s matured as a songwriter. Once I Was an Eagle renders even that narrative moot. She’s as mature a songwriter as you’ll find today, confidently referencing her influences (a winking “It Ain’t Me, Babe” lift in “Master Hunter”, a fair bit of Joni in the delivery of the second half) and crafting deceptively simple beauties like “Love Be Brave” that sound like they’ve just always existed. Once I Was an Eagle is a bold work that, in theory, shouldn’t work — a lengthy, near-concept album about emotional availability — but Marling makes it into one of the year’s essential releases.