Laura Marling has always presented herself as an assertive, free-spirited figure in her songwriting, and accordingly so much of the conversation around her career has been driven by the idea that she is a strong woman. On Semper Femina, her sixth album, she tackles the notion of a female artist having to deal with such categorisation.
The title is derived from a line from Virgil’s Aeneid, the whole of which translates as “a woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing”, and therein lies the record’s driving force. Marling writes here about women, and herself, as capable of being simultaneously tragic and inspiring, neither defined by male relationships nor free from the effect of masculinity.
The theme is most specifically explored on Nouel, named after a close friend of Marling’s since moving to Los Angeles over five years ago. “She’d like to be the kind of free a woman still can’t be alone,” she sings, before sensually describing her as she lies on her bed, citing Gustave Courbet’s explicitly erotic painting L’Origine du Monde as a comparison. This is not a lesbian fantasy, nor a pastiche of the male gaze, but a rare exploration of female friendship in song. She sings of Nouel lovingly and intimately without bowing to any suggested boundaries between sexual love and friendship.
The subject of 21st century femininity clearly animates Marling, who spent a chunk of the time since her last record making a podcast series exploring the role of female creativity in the music industry. She is not shy of turning the lens on herself either, as demonstrated by Wild Once. Singing in an almost comically English accent, she reflects that “I was wild once, and I can’t forget it, chasing stones”. She has stated that these songs grew out of a “masculine” period of her life, and this song seems to mark the genesis of that.
Musically, this is also one of Marling’s most intriguing albums to date. Lead single Soothing is propelled by strutting, block percussion and a melodic, twanging bassline. Strains of strings flush the climax of the song, whilst a distant electric guitar wails. Having produced previous album Silent Movie herself, this time the reins were handed to Blake Mills, who had previously sought her out. Don’t Pass Me By is driven by something resembling a drum machine loop, marking significant new territory in her back catalogue, whilst closing track Nothing Not Nearly provides a fittingly frenzied electric finale, drawing a type of Neil Young comparison that Marling has so far been unaccustomed to.
The track The Valley is a classically romantic composition, a throwback to a patchouli-drenched 1960s commune, with Marling singing of the newness that the morning dew brings, her low, mysterious register recalling Nico or Vashti Bunyan. The strings which are present throughout so much of the album thrive in their big moment, whilst a wash of multi-tracked backing vocals threaten to tip it into delirium. She’s never sounded closer to Nick Drake.
The following track, Wildfire, however, sees her finding a new voice. Starting out as the familiar no-BS folk troubadour, painting a character study that could come from I Speak Because I Can, the chorus hits and Marling proudly blossoms into an assured soul singer, complete with fluctuating, melismatic vocal. It is at once another step in the development of the figure that has been so beloved for nearly a decade and a complete bolt from the blue. It is one of Semper Femina’s standout tracks, and a career highlight.
She recently said that she is at her most sincere when she is singing, which has never felt more true: this album deals with femininity in a nuanced and honest manner, with Marling never hiding behind a façade of characters or dealing in over-familiar observations. Few songwriters, let alone any still in their mid-20s, are able to illuminate such complex material with this degree of insight and personal experience. What’s more, while Short Movie felt like a minor departure, this record still manages to sound deeply connected to its predecessors.