The fourth album by the British folk singer-songwriter is not the first for her to garner critical acclaim, having already been nominated for two Mercury Prizes. Once… shows that she is continuing to progress even further as an artist despite her youth, as this is her finest effort to date. The transitions between songs are seamless and the album flows cohesively, and its reasonable length will either detract or delight listeners. The guitar work is very impressive and utilizes open tunings, and her vocals are flawless. Considering the length and that for the most part it is just her and a guitar, this is an ambitious effort.
The opening quartet work as a medley, and is a breath-taking start to the record. “Take the Night Off” and “I Was an Eagle” are undoubtedly two standouts, and have Marling bubbling thoughts and feelings, building up incredible amounts of emotions and tension before allowing her guitar to ease the pressure. A relationship collapse and sense of dread looms over the first half of the album, “I will not be a victim of romance”, “We were a pair once of oh such despair once”, before finally, “When you wake you’ll know I’m gone.” Following the medley is the album’s best track, “Master Hunter”, a masterclass in how to embody anger and ferocity. Musically it is also the strongest track, with an intimidating guitar riff backing her as she proclaims, “You let men into your bed, they don’t know you well. They can’t get into my head, they don’t have a hope in hell.”
The sombre and delicate “Little Love Caster” is the most vulnerable moment on Once… The honest, powerful lyric, “I can’t seem to say, I’d like you to stay” uttered by such a strong minded individual makes her story that much more believable. However, the tone is changed drastically in the second half of the album, and is evident in the upbeat “Where Can I Go?” The instrumentation and production is far more lively, but by no means does it detract the quality of music. The recurrence of her non-existent love as a theme occurs again in “Pray for Me”, where she decides, “I cannot love, I want to be alone.”
Album highlight “Love Be Brave” is very reminiscent of a Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac vibe, the chorus is stunning with twanging guitars and strong vocals. Album closer “Saved These Words” seems to incorporate so many sections of prior songs, it truly feels a climactic and appropriate ending to this largely desolate tale. “When you’re ready, into my arms come… And words are sleazy, my love is better dumb”, she says, finally admitting there is a chance for her to fall in love.
The album is not perfect, but nor does it really have any weak tracks. Could it have benefited from a couple less songs? Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless, Marling has given us one of the most accomplished albums of the year, a foreboding tale of isolated feelings and broken relationships. “Oh I was a child once, oh I was happy young”, she says, showing that her naïveté may have long gone, but the love still dwells inside. “When Were You Happy” contains the lyric which probably sums the record most adeptly, “Wouldn’t it be a thing to live somewhere quietly? Where there’s a breeze and there’s a reason for us to be.” This early into her career, Marling is already making music that no one else dares or even could make.
Verdict – 8.8
Top Songs – “Take the Night Off/I Was an Eagle”, “Master Hunter”, “Saved These Words”