Having just turned 27 by the release of her sixth studio album, Semper Femina, Laura Marling has displayed a maturity and growth like few other singer-songwriters. Each album following the folk singer’s debut in 2008 with Alas, I Cannot Swim has displayed a heightened experience and ability when it came to composing, writing lyrics and projecting her ideas in a refined, and often poignant, format. This creative streak met its peak on Marling’s fourth album, 2013’s Once I Was an Eagle, which, although the musician’s most stripped-back record, was her most elaborate in terms of her compositional prowess and the intricate narrative conveyed through her strongest lyrical endeavours to date. Marling surely felt the burden of following such a well-received record, abandoning a handful of songs initially written for its follow-up, and then taking a six month break from the music industry to recuperate. The artist returned from her hiatus with a seemingly reinvented disposition, and this translated into a significant stylistic deviation on her fifth studio album, Short Movie, with many of the compositions appearing on this record being far more rock-orientated, with Marling even setting aside her acoustic guitar and picking up an electric for the first time in her discography. Given that the singer-songwriter’s acoustic folk stylings were honed to potentially their highest degree of dexterity on Once I Was an Eagle, I personally thought that Short Movie would be the beginning of a new chapter in Marling’s career, wherein she would set her sights on polishing this new sound. However, on her latest album, Semper Femina, the musician reins in the rock sensibilities present on Short Movie and returns to the folk stylings of her previous material, even incorporating some jazz and country concepts at times. In this regard, Semper Femina seems to pick up from where Once I Was an Eagle left off, rather than Short Movie, in that Marling’s subtle but intricate approach to composing and writing lyrics is more evocative of her fourth album, but the more indulgent use of timbre progresses past its instrumental restrictions. Lyrically speaking, too, Semper Femina bypasses many of Marling’s previous themes pertaining to romantic love, instead unwrapping the concept of femininity, particularly the composition of the female character and the way in which this is influenced by her interactions with other women. The phrase ‘semper femina’ is lifted from Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneid, and translates from Latin as ‘always woman’, with the whole line reading, “fickle and changeable always is woman”. Indeed, not only are Marling’s lyrics here amongst her most artistically aware to date, but the music on Semper Femina, too, displays an impressively cohesive marriage of myriad musical worlds, with all of this being packaged in the singer’s usual tight songwriting abilities. As such, the end product, on all fronts, is one of Marling’s strongest albums thus far in her career, seemingly encompassing many of the key reasons for her status as one of the most notable English singer-songwriters to have emerged in the past decade.
The album’s opening track, Soothing, is a very strong start to the record, perhaps even being amongst Marling’s richest and most impressively textured compositions. The duelling bass lines make use of chromatic jazz ideas, which instantly sets the song apart from any other on the record, and even the singer’s swooping vocal lines seem to be inspired by modal jazz concepts at times. Much of this piece’s multi-faceted vibrancy arises from the skillful incorporation of a plethora of instruments. The subtle string section, for instance, provides perfect counterpoint to Marling’s vocal lines, particularly over the chorus, wherein the way in which they flutter around the mix mimics the singer to an extent. The use of some faint music box-like chimes and, towards the end of the track, some ambiguous ambiance juxtaposes the calm and refined nature of the rest of the composition, being oddly ominous, which is ironic, given the song’s title. Soothing is also a stand-alone track with regards to its lyrics, featuring some of the few mentions of men on the entire record. Indeed, at no point on Semper Femina does Marling use male pronouns or explicitly reference a man, but the fact that the opening line of this song states that it is addressed to her “hopeless wanderer” is surely a reference to Marling’s ex-partner Marcus Mumford, whose band, Mumford & Sons, have a song called Hopeless Wanderer. Given that Marling has utilised this exact technique in the past on the song Blackberry Stone, wherein she references a Noah and the Whale song as a means of addressing Charlie Fink, the band’s frontman and once boyfriend of the singer, it seems certain that Mumford is the addressee of Soothing, thus making this track an outlier on Semper Femina. Indeed, although Marling has dealt with the complications of lost relationships in the past, she conveys a heightened sense of maturity on Soothing, particularly in tackling the conflicted feelings that arise from her libido as a woman, which makes the resolution of the song with the repetition of the line, “I banish you with love” impressively forceful for such an understated composition. Ultimately, this is wherein the great success of this song lies, in that it is just as hushed and subdued as most of Marling’s material, but is nonetheless incredibly powerful, both as a result of the ravishing instrumentation and the lyrical content, which is made all the more poignant courtesy of the singer’s delicate but emotive performance.
Following the jazzy diversion taken on Soothing, much of Semper Femina builds on Marling’s usual folk stylings, albeit with a slightly increased scope in the ideas incorporated and the other artists she seems to often reference. The Valley, for instance, stands out not solely as a result of the beautiful acoustic guitars, the lonely, swelling strings and the singer’s wistful vocal performance, but this song is one of the most brazenly English on the entire record. The Englishness of this song is incredibly suggestive of Nick Drake, both in the subtle and introverted performance and the natural symbolist imagery evoked in the lyrics. Even Marling’s vocals strongly remind me specifically of Drake’s song Place to Be, not just because of the melodic similarities, but also in that the unconventional phrasing of this melody is reminiscent of the modal jazz sensibilities that permeated Drake’s attitude to composing vocal parts, seemingly approaching them as if they were saxophone or clarinet melodies instead. Similarly, Wild Fire touches on an approach to writing and performing vocal parts that reminds me of Joni Mitchell in certain regards, an artist, I imagine, has greatly influenced Marling. The story-telling structure of the lyrics also reminds me of Mitchell, but the topic that seemingly deals with a lesbian relationship is central to Marling’s own narrative that she spins on much of Semper Femina. This is continued on Don’t Pass Me By, but in a much more morose manner, standing out as one of the most heartrending moments on the record, both in terms of the maudlin lyrics and the strange electric guitar riff, making use of more jazzy, chromatic ideas. The entire concept of this piece makes for one of the most forlorn songs Marling has ever written, with the singer using the acoustic guitar that she shared with this female partner as a representation of their relationship, making lines such as, “Take my old guitar / And sell it off for parts” absolutely crushing when the listener realises what this means. Indeed, the intricacies of this record, both musically and lyrically, are far too complex to detail, or even comprehend, in full, but this is wherein a large portion of the success of Semper Femina lies, in that these pretty and pensive folk songs are masked by multiple layers of artistic complexity that make for an insightful and generally fascinating listen.
Ultimately, whilst there is indeed a large amount of meaning to be unpacked in these songs, that’s not to detract from the fact that Semper Femina is also an incredibly inviting record, and one that can be enjoyed purely on a musical front, given that Marling’s songwriting is as strong and refined as ever and the instrumental arrangements are absolutely ravishing. Even though Marling’s lyrics are often ambiguous, occasionally even displaying a sense of confusion within the singer herself, this album is straightforward in its accessibility, with the comforting Englishness of many of these pieces being very easy to get lost in. Whilst Semper Femina is successful for many of the same reasons as Marling’s previous output, it goes beyond this in certain regards, and stands out as potentially the singer-songwriter’s most intelligent, aware and introspective work to date. In this sense, this release only fortifies Marling’s status as a singer-songwriter who can simultaneously evoke the folk music of yesteryear whilst also bearing the torch for a new-found appreciation of the genre as an art form and as a vehicle for conveying convoluted concepts.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10