Album Review: Laura Marling – Semper Femina

By on Friday, 10th March 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Semper Femina album coverOne of the highlights of SXSW 2015, for me, was seeing singer/songwriter Laura Marling in all her photogenic beauty. I was familiar with her music, having reviewed her 2013 album ‘Once I Was an Eagle’, and fascinated by the consistently high quality of her songwriting, but I hadn’t realised how captivating she was as a performer until that point. This week, Marling releases a new album titled ‘Semper Femina’ that simultaneously brings both of those characteristics to light.

The album title is a shortened version of the Latin phrase “varium et mutabile semper femina”, meaning “woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing”. Those final two words, “ever woman”, are the ones Marling concerns herself with, beginning in the video for album opener and first single ‘Soothing’, which I reviewed here at the end of last year. In terms of both music and lyrics, ‘Soothing’ turns out to be a fair foreshadowing of what lies beyond it.

Perhaps the most immediately striking aspect of ‘Semper Femina’ is Marling’s unapologetic depiction of female characters from her own female narrative perspective. This is significant, as some of her lyrics might be more usually expected from a male narrator about a female protagonist. But Marling seems to revel in the ambiguity as she focuses her primary attention on the vivid emotion in her stories. In ‘The Valley’, she evokes an almost tangible sense of nostalgia and regret, while at the same time keeping her pronouns purposefully fluid: “I love you in the morning, I love you in the day, I’d love you in the evening, if only she would stay”. Indeed, the roles of narrator and protagonist seem inseparably intertwined, as if there were a constant series of subtle perspective shifts happening behind the scenes.

From a musical perspective, the album contains a few mild surprises. ‘Wild Fire’, for example, is soulful, perhaps a little jazzy, in its smooth dynamic and the uneven meter of its lyrics. Vocally, Marling’s measured delivery shows remarkable variation and sensitivity in conveying the complex range of emotional subtleties in her narrative lines: “she keeps a pen behind her ear in case she’s got something she really, really needs to say / she puts it in a notepad, she’s gonna write a book someday / of course the only part that I want to read / is about her time spent with me”.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/0EUdZFcq-QE[/youtube]

The edgier ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and current single ‘Nothing Not Nearly’ both take cues from Marling’s previous album ‘Short Movie’ in their use of electric guitar and a raw, organic vocal style. The dark, sultry intro of ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ is both hypnotic and somewhat sinister in light of the song’s ominous lyrics, “you ask her if she knew / was this something I would do / from the start?”. The distorted guitar sound of ‘Nothing Not Nearly’ is initially a bit jarring, but the song’s chorus, “the only thing I learned in a year where I didn’t smile once, not really / was nothing matters more than love, no nothing no, no nothing no, not nearly”, is among the most memorable melodies on the album.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/3fgyr7-RciE[/youtube]

Late album track ‘Nouel’ is the centerpiece of ‘Semper Femina’ in many ways, not the least of which is the title line in its lyrics: “oh Nouel, you must know me well / and I didn’t even show you the scar / fickle and changeable, semper femina”. The song’s spare acoustic arrangement highlights Marling’s character-driven narrative and once again the intermingling femininity of her narrator and protagonist. Marling’s singing voice is nothing short of beautiful here, in both its tone and its inflections, elegant yet down-to-earth, wise and mature, ephemeral and elusive.

Marling’s own lyrics in ‘Always This Way’ are a reminder of the apparent contradiction between her relative youth and her deep well of songwriting experience. Despite her self-deprecation in the lines “25 years, nothing to show for it . . . 25 more, will I never learn from it, never learn from my mistakes?”, there are very few mistakes or missteps on ‘Semper Femina’. Rather, the album is a realisation of the potential Marling hinted at with ‘Short Movie’ and a clear indication of her continuing evolution as a songwriter. She has learned to take herself seriously, but no longer seems to feel the need to go out of her way proving it. Here, she has allowed herself the artistic freedom to explore a set of ideas that genuinely interest her, and the synthesis of her voice, her songwriting skill, and her intellect speak naturally for themselves.

9/10

Laura Marling’s sixth LP ‘Semper Femina’ is out today on More Alarming Records/Kobalt. Marling is currently on tour in the UK. Details on her upcoming full band dates are listed here and a list of more intimate solo dates is through here. To catch up on TGTF’s complete archive of coverage on Laura Marling, be found use this link.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

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