British songstress Laura Marling released her sixth album, “Semper Femina” on March 10th. Her latest release is a cohesive collection of songs examining the complex relationships of women. “Semper Femina” is the follow up to Marling’s 2015 critically acclaimed album “Short Movie”. “Semper Femina” evinces the nuanced but ever expanding palette that Marling works with to tell her intimate tales. The always feted performer yet again stretches herself sonically and thematically on the album. Throughout Marling seems to be seeking an understanding of how to navigate the dread and angst of life, while acknowledging an undercurrent of losses that add up over time in friendships and relationships.
Semper Femina was recorded in 2016 with producer Blake Miles manning the faders and knobs. The title of the release is borrowed from the Ancient Poet Virgil’s works. Taking from his poems an expression that when roughly translated means “A woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing.” The theme underlines Marling’s investigation into the essence of female behavior and motivation. While never forsaking her folk foundations Marling intersperses some great rock riffs in the album. That commingling helps combine all that Marling has created on prior works such as Once I was an Eagle and Short Movie and adds something new and distinctive into the mix. What results is a strong and significant musical creation.
The album starts off with the hypnotic Soothing which is just that. The sensuous sonics are brought about with tribal rhythms, lovely jazz bass and Marling’s rich lush vocals which are a reminder of Karen Carpenter’s contralto loveliness. What is presented in the selection is a torch song in reverse, where what is usually desired is repelled rather than attracted. The Valley begins with a gorgeous acoustic guitar that becomes more lustrous and dreamy as the song progresses. The lyrics question lopsided friendships and the idea of givers and takers in those scenarios. Here and many times throughout the album Marling is asking questions she doesn’t expect answers to, but feels a compulsion to ask them all the same. The track Wild Fire is classic Marling with its inspired fusion of Folk and Blues. The discordant percussive effect is gripping as the song examines unfulfilled dreams and how they too often wither in the light of pragmatic daylight and the passing of time. The song is a masterclass in singer/songwriter skills which Marling has in spades.
Don’t Pass Me By is a captivating selection where the sonics are more rock influenced. There is a feeling of noir and ennui related that harkens to the stylings of Portishead. The swirling wavery guitar does the heavy lifting on a “do not miss” track. Marling continues to impress on Always the Way with its splendid double bass treatment. The song is stripped back and simple evoking great emotion. There is significant personal self examination taking place in the song with lyrics like, “Lately I’ve been wondering if all my pondering is taking up too much ground, and “25 years and nothing to show for it.” Marling’s self doubt about her abilities is unfounded as proven with this song which shines with her masterful skills.
Marling again weaves magic with Wild Once. The song recalls with 20/20 hindsight the bittersweet nostalgia for the wild child we all were in our youth. It also identifies the importance of keeping a connection with that inner child no matter how old one grows. Next Time takes as its topic gathering your courage when you are challenged and facing adversity by looking it directly in the face. The lyrics acknowledge that failure is the usual outcome for most endeavors. Marling stresses that it is essential to try again and do better rather than taking the path of least resistance and give up. The sonics of the song are a beautiful blending of bluegrass tinged guitar with evocative strings making for something thoroughly sublime. Nouel is the showpiece of the album and the lyrics provide the title for the album. The song is about a woman past her prime who once set the world on fire, “ah you sit so well, a thousand artists’ muse.” There is a forthrightness and intimacy to the song that makes it so enticing. The final offering is probably my favorite, Nothing, Not Nearly. There is a beguiling blues guitar in the beginning that transitions almost effortlessly into a delicate folk acoustic selection. Marling makes that transition seamlessly showing up her excellent musical structuring skills. With this track Marling comes to the end of her exploration and finds “ … I think I learned in a year why I never smiled once, not really, nothing matters more than love…once its gone its gone love waits for no one.” With that discovery the song sails off into the ether; closing out a captivating release with a breathtaking track.
Semper Femina is an elegant profound creation. Marling labors in the workshop of storied singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Carole King and Sufjan Stevens. Much has been made of Marling only using female pronouns for all her protagonists on the release. The album is not a feminist thesis excluding males from the conversation, but an examination of what makes up the inner workings and emotions of women. The themes are engaging and full of clear eyed pragmatism. Marling has certainly continued on her upward trajectory producing another impressive release.