Two albums ago, with the folksy seminal sound of 2013’s Once I Was An Eagle, Laura Marling asked herself ‘Where Can I Go?’, and oh boy, has she come far. This month, we welcome back the musical veteran, with many a guitar in tow, onto the buzzing alternative music landscape with her latest offering, Semper Femina. Just wait to sink your teeth into this one.
Straying from the desert-tinged, electric hum of her previous release, Short Movie (2015), Semper Femina embraces a return to Marling’s fingerpicking acoustic glory. The record is magnetic in its balance between folksong familiarity and sonic exploration. Bringing eclectic music-man Blake Mills on board as producer – a collaborator of melody makers John Legend, Fiona Apple and Dawes – was a wise decision. All at once, the sound is fleshed out with a swell of strings and drawling guitar yet entirely stripped back in parts, letting Laura’s purring vocals take the spotlight. It’s musical wizardry at its finest.
This is illustrated no better than in the first single and opening track, ‘Soothing’. It’s a bizarre one from Marling, favouring the rhythmic throb of the double bass and a much jazzier tone than we’ve ever heard from her before. To me, it can’t help but echo the later jazzy leanings of fellow queen-of-the-strangely-tuned-guitar Joni Mitchell. Admittedly, I do somewhat wish Marling had run more recklessly with this new sound throughout the rest of the record, but that’s not to say what she’s given us is not pretty darn good.
What really sets the album ablaze is its eponymous feminine focus. Semper Femina, or ‘always a woman’ in its translation from Latin, stems from a line from Virgil’s classic poetry (a backstory which makes my Lit. student self glow with admiration). Marling’s even got it tattooed on her upper thigh, and the woman-centric moral is similarly etched into the entire album. Stating that she initally ‘started out writing Semper Femina as if a man was writing about a woman’, this soon led to the realisation that it rang truer if she wrote from her own, innately feminine, perspective. True girl power. From this, songs like the hauntingly gentle ‘The Valley’ – reminiscent of Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left – and lilting guitar tune ‘Nouel’ became ballads dedicated to female friendship and its aching complexities. A true standout lyrical line strikes as Marling reprimands the romanticisation of a voyeuristic gaze as she snarls “You always say you love me most when I don’t know when I’m being seen/Maybe someday when God takes me away, I’ll understand what the fuck that means”. Laura M sure has one hell of a bite.
Semper Femina comes to an end with the track, ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’, which, in its sleazy slur of electric guitar and spoken-word vocals, offers a sense of optimism. And with that, she leaves us wanting more, with the sense she’s not anywhere near finished. Not even nearly.