AHEAD OF WEDNESDAY’S ANNOUNCEMENT OF 2013’S MERCURY PRIZE WINNER, AOT WRITERS HAVE BEEN SINKING THEIR TEETH INTO THE NOMINEES, DISCERNING BETWEEN MOUTHGASM MARVELLOUSNESS AND INDIGESTION-INDUCING MUSICAL BUGGERY.
If Laura Marling is the individual to walk away from this year’s Mercury Music Prize ceremony clutching that (dangerously pointy) trophy, it’s safe to say that I will be a particularly jubilant viewer on the night. The short-list for this year – while it does have its share of baffling choices – is rather solid for the most part, with at least seven of the twelve nominated records more than worthy to receive the title for 2013. Yet, for my money, it is Marling – and her competing album, Once I Was An Eagle – who deserves to be recognised more than any other nominee.
Admittedly, with her latest musical ventures, Marling is not exactly toying with new formulas or breaking fresh ground in the manner of, say, Jon Hopkins or the ludicrously-snubbed These New Puritans. But what Once I Was An Eagle lacks in left-field surprises and fresh perspectives, it more than makes up for with its remarkable – and deeply rewarding – sense of poise. I have already waxed lyrical about the merits of the album as an entity in my full review, but I will emphasise several key things about its core strengths, and why it thoroughly deserves to be crowned with the Mercury.
Most simply of all, even several months after listening to it for the first time, there are still layers and tiny revelations to be unearthed during repeat listens. Whether it’s a particularly sharp lyric suddenly making its significance felt, or the recognition of motifs and melodies being mirrored and reshaped, it’s extraordinary to witness just how seamlessly the album flows as a whole. It’s a cyclical, theatrical tale of power struggles, which gradually circles itself to form a satisfying arc, whose familiar, repeated elements serve to accentuate the gradual, subtle changes in both sound and style. (For one example, consider how the frantic guitar runs of Take the Night Off and I Was An Eagle compare to the closing passages of Little Bird and Saved These Words.)
But it’s not just an exercise in symmetry. There’s a whole host of devices at work here, with emotions swelling, dipping and soaring throughout with no real conclusions or blunt points. The revelatory moments which are painstakingly constructed are, in isolation, barely distinguishable. Yet upon arriving during a full listening experience, they are cause for true delight. The quaking chills of Devil’s Resting Place and the unity of Where Can I Go? are but two examples; their polar catharses crafted atop the groundwork laid by previous tracks. Yet even then, no one track is dull in of itself. Thanks to Marling’s ever-flowering literary nous and her ways of pulling potent melodies from skeletal components, Once I Was An Eagle is able to keep its listeners completely absorbed for its entire 63-minute runtime.
So, yes, it’s a truly magnificent album. But why should it win the Mercury Music Prize, as opposed to the likes of Hopkins, Savages and David Bowie? Well, glib as it might sound, I believe there’s more than a modicum of truth in the hushed whispers circulating around the camps of her devotees: “this is her time.”
Perhaps this is oversimplifying matters, but ultimately, the basis of my argument has its roots in that very sentiment. Marling has already received nominations for the Mercury, for 2008’s nimble Alas I Cannot Swim and 2010’s shadowy I Speak Because I Can. But Once I Was An Eagle is on another plane entirely: even after such an illustrious career, this is her first definitive masterpiece, in terms of ambition, song-writing, and intelligence. And by rights, the perfection of her craft – as well as the creation of a breathtakingly beautiful album into the bargain – more than deserves to be recognised.