At the ripe age of 23 British singer Laura Marling has become a force of nature

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Laura Marling
  • Justin Tyler Close
  • Laura Marling
With every new recording the British singer-songwriter Laura Marling has made significant leaps in quality, depth, and vision, and that growth continues on her new album Once I Was An Eagle (Ribbon Music)—due out next Tuesday. It's a gorgeously stripped-down effort featuring acoustic guitar, bass, piano, and Spartan percussion (congas, vibes), putting the vocalist's stunning voice front and center, where it belongs. While Marling has never reminded me more of Joni Mitchell, she's also never sounded more like herself. Her beautiful voice is husky, quietly forceful, and gently sensual, and in combination with the resourceful arrangements she dissolves the need for determining whether she's playing rock or folk music.

The album seems to be a poignant, sometimes visceral song cycle chronicling the life of a tumultuous, intense relationship, marked by strength, independence, and anger. On "Master Hunter" that strength is barely disguised defensiveness, with the narrator burned by love one too many times ("I cured my skin / Now nothing gets in, nothing not as hard as it tries"). Some of the album's 16 tracks bleed into one another, and the line "Yes, I am a master" opens the next song "Little Love Caster," where the invulnerability of the previous song vanishes into uncertainty; the aggressive thrum of its predecessor morphs into something fragile and meditative, with cello liming the acoustic guitar arpeggios and Marling delivering words in a conversational hush, wondering whether or not she should bare her emotions.

I hear strains of Bob Dylan on "Where Can I Go?" with organ lines that sound borrowed from Blonde on Blonde, but there's no missing the feminist backbone in lines like, "She's just a sweet thing with a curl / Just about a woman with her clothes on / You take them off and she's a girl." I've only had time to listen to the album a few times, but each spin has hit me harder, both in the emotional heft of the melodies, singing, and playing, and the mature power of the lyrics. I can't believe she just turned 23 a few months ago. Marling plays the Athenaeum Theatre on Thursday evening.

You can check out "Master Hunter" below, and NPR Music is currently streaming the entire album.

Today's playlist:

Mike Osborne Trio, All Night Long (Ogun)
David Ruffin, So Soon We Change (Warner Bros./Collector's Choice)
Marie McAuliffe's Ark Sextet, Refractions: Marie McAuliffe's Ark Sextet Plays the Music of Burt Bacharach (Avant)
Scott Walker, Climate of Hunter (Virgin)
Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo, Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis Music)

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