Album Review by Adrienne Frances
Marling’s 6th album in 9 years is entitled Semper Femina, a nod to a longer quote from Virgil: “varium et mutabile semper femina“ – “woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing”.
This is perfectly fitting for an album which happily jumps from the deep bluesy bass of the first single ‘Soothing’, a song that is hypnotic and darkly sexual, to the second track on the album ‘The Valley’ whose melody and instrumentation evokes lazy days floating down a Cambridge river relaxing in the peacefulness of the day. The latter is deceptive however, as upon closer listening to the lyrics, we hear a lullaby eluding to the complexities of female friendship, and hiding underneath are lyrics full of bittersweet and gentle melancholy. And Semper Femina continues to ebb and flow from track to track, touching on melancholia and introspection, but with less urgency and a more deliberate exploration of those dynamics.
I’d been lucky enough to hear some of this new material last year, at a BBC Radio 4 Mastertapes recording in Maida Vale. Alongside her tracks from ‘Once I was an Eagle’ she played Soothing, Wildfire, and Nouel which left me eager for more. ‘Once I Was an Eagle’ was also an interesting album, as I saw her perform it as part of Secret Cinema / Secret Music, dressed in Edwardian inspired garb, exploring a ‘decrepit mansion’ full of wilted flowers and art and impromptu performance art. That album felt very theatrical, and performance and art is something that is referenced by Marling often, however Semper Femina feels quite different to this.
Wildfire returns us to a more familiar Marling territory – led by her guitar picking, but with a distinct country twang of positivity to it. Don’t Pass Me By follows in a darker vein, and on first listen I jotted down ‘film noir?’ but really that was me being swept away by the strings and echoing vocals.
Given that this album is Marling exploring her relationship to and with women, I’m reminded of Tori Amos’ album ‘Strange Little Girls’ where she covered iconic songs written and performed by men, turned inside out by her feminine take on them. This is different however, and more authentic. This isn’t a woman re-envisioning the male gaze, this is the female gaze in its complex and curious entirety.
Always This Way continues the gentle lullaby feeling found in The Valley, and moves swiftly into Wild Once which sees Marling’s vocals edgier than previous tracks, more English – beautiful and unapologetic in their intonation. Next Time follows with rhythmic guitar that reminds me of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’, but the lyrics are once again much darker than the melody would imply: “I feel her, I hear her weakly scream. Am I really so unkind, to turn around and close my eyes. I’ll do better next time.”
Nouel, a track inspired by a friend of the same name, and loosely the title track of the album. Marling has spoken about how this woman inspired her to write this track, and laughed as she said she felt sure this wouldn’t be the first song or work of art inspired by Nouel, a modern muse. “I’d do well to serve Nouel, whatever service I may be. Fickle and changeable, weighing down on me.” Of all the tracks on the album, this one most implicitly explores the complicated dynamic found in female friendships. “She’d like to be the kind of free that woman still can’t be alone. How I wish I could hit the switch that keeps you from getting gone.”
Final track Nothing, Not Nearly brings an Americana vibe to her reflections on a year where she lost and then found herself again. It talks about love, but it’s clear that she’s talking about self love and self acceptance, not some other person, but of being comfortable and happy in your own bones.
And my experience throughout repeated listenings to Semper Femina echoes this idea of ‘woman’ as fickle and changeable. First cursory listen I felt Soothing stood out awkwardly from the rest of the album as a startling beacon leaving the rest of the album in its shadow. However with further listenings I’m drawn into how each track explores the interconnectedness between ‘woman’ and ‘women’ and ‘self’. My initial certainty that I felt ambivalent to the majority of the album tracks melted away with repeated listens, and so I find myself to be fickle and changeable.
“Semper femina, so am I.” So am I.
Don’t Pass Me By
Always This Way
Nothing, Not Nearly
Laura Marling’s UK Tour Starts tonight! See all of the dates here.
Semper Femina release date: 10/03/2017