words by jordan gorsuch
– Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House
Semper Femina is a phrase that can be found tattooed to 27-year-old folk singer Laura Marling’s thigh and it is also the title of her sublime and illuminating sixth studio album. It is a record about her understanding of femininity and consequently feels like a natural extension to her prior Reversal of the Muse podcast that explored female creativity in the music industry (which is male-dominated). Sonically, it feels like Marling is embracing a sort-of trepidation of spheres: every song is retrained and withholding, only allowing the listener faint glimpses into their underbelly. The instrumentation features seductive drum beats, low-end bass lines, and flurries of orchestration. Each violin or cello swell cuts to your bone, with soft and bright guitar plucking just around the corner as Marling spins tales and paints scenery with ease and grace in each hypnotizing track. Nick Drake’s influence is felt from the soft, pure vocal styling of Marling and the airy, sparse instrumentation that borders on minimalist.
The opener, “Soothing” features cloak-and-dagger production and two basses playing lines that wrap around each other and twist in and out of Marling’s sultry voice. Tense flickers of electric guitar kick up out of the mix, as an air of foreboding casts a shadow on the proceedings; Marling utilizes Yonic symbolism to describe a woman struggling to commit to abstinence. “I need soothing / My lips aren’t moving / My God is brooding.” The following track, “The Valley” is even more impressive. Marling manages lyrical unrest, a give-and-take shell game of a song about an enchanting feminine figure set against docile, palliative strings. Fluttering guitar work guides Marling’s clear-eyed longing: “I love you in the morning / I love you in the day / I’ve loved you in the evening / If only she would stay.” Marling imagines her muse’s golden hair, her hidden grief that cannot be shared, and her own desire to comfort her. “Perhaps she’s had too much of love / Can be a sickly thing,” Marling concludes in regards to her idyllic figure.
Marling examines the multiple forms love can take shape in our lives and the effects of its presence – she deepens this urge to understand humanity’s most complicated chemical in the evocative and deeply felt cut, “Wild Fire.” As she often does on the album, Marling takes up the role of an omnipotent narrator as she draws a portrait of a woman stoking a fire within her. Soft acoustic guitar hammer-ons blend with sparse piano notes as Marling describes a woman with a lot on her mind and pen behind her ear (“She’s gonna write a book someday.”) “There no sweeter deed may be,” she sings, “Than to love something enough / To want to help it get free.” It’s a revelation for a person with a sad mother and a mean father; a silent appreciation for the practical knowledge to stop a clingy suitor from snuffing out her internal flame, her voice. Of course, the opening lines tell us all that we need to know: “You wanna get high / Yeah, overcome those desires before you come to me.” She won’t be her parents; she won’t stifle herself in the name of someone else’s need to claim ownership.
‘‘Can you love me if I put up a fight?’’ Marling asks bitterly on “Don’t Pass Me By,” the strings alternate between emulating a haunting horror score and a melancholic sense of understated understanding. “Always This Way” is simply gorgeous, as Marling palm mutes and accentuates deep notes on her guitar. The pastoral guitars guide Marling’s pain-stricken voice as she sings about paths not taken and a friendship cut short for no apparent reason. A weeping cello swells as Marling mourns the loss of her friend: “Now she’s gone and I’m all alone / And she will not be replaced.” The young songwriter shines brightly on “Next Time,” a meditation of what freedom really means from the perspective of a woman. A trotting and cyclical chord progression adds to the lyrical poignancy of protecting our Mother Earth: “I can no longer close my eyes / While the world around me dies...” Marling does not spare herself from pointed remark – “At the hands of folks like me,” she shares in the blame.
For someone that is only 27-years-old there is a lot of taking stock, looking backwards, and contextualizing to be found on this nine-track package. This portrait on femininity is strengthened because it does not present easy answers or put one perspective on a glorified pedestal. This is not utopian thinking, Marling simply presents a point-of-view and a subject that is all too sadly overlooked and ignored. Take for instance the Virgil quote that the album finds its name: “A woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing,” a lesser album would make this the crux of an argument, a strawman that would bolster a binary-level of thinking. “Nouel” is a beautiful ballad in tribute to the power and inspiration that a woman can bring; and an interesting ode to female creativity. She makes a gentle (yet distinct) tweak to Virgil’s famous quote: “fickle, unchangeable.” One word can make all the difference. Marling represents a tireless search for answers of nuance in an increasingly either/or world filled with us vs. them mentalities that further divide people from each other. She is just searching for a little understanding, a little humanity.
“Does no one understand you?” asks Marling with sardonic affection on “Wild Once,” before affirming “You are wild and I won’t forget it.” She sympathizes with the frustration of not being able to explain the feelings kept bottled inside, or the injustice of not being taken seriously. Yet, she is also of a pragmatic mind: “It’s hard if you can’t change it / It’s worse if you don’t try.” The final cut on the album is more up-tempo than the tracks that precede it. Marling’s cadence is fast and loose and an electric guitar unfurls like the rolling tide over a shore of acoustic guitar chords. Marling distills a year of her challenges into a simple lesson — ‘‘The only thing I learnt in a year / Where I didn’t smile once, not really / Is nothing matters more than love.’’
It’s a simple, universal truth that anyone can relate to. Struggle breeds humility, character, and understanding. A woman knows that better than just about anyone…it is also why that ending with Marling setting down her guitar, opening the door and being with the birds is so significant – she is free, she found love, but it came at some point of struggle.
She can finally spread her wings.
Semper Femina, indeed.
‘Semper Femina’ is out now,
via More Alarming Records/Kobalt Music Recordings