I think it only appropriate, at the end of the week that has seen us celebrate International Women's Day, that the title of this week's feature album literally translates as 'always a woman'. Semper Femina is the sixth album from three time Mercury Prize nominee Laura Marling.
A running theme of this year so far has been artists who I have previously held in great esteem releasing shockingly bad albums (The xx, Ryan Adams, Alison Krauss' release last week). It is with double-layered kid gloves then that I handled the album of an artist that I have enjoyed ever since I first heard a version of Ghosts back in 2007. That song spawned debut album Alas, I Cannot Swim which was a debutante dream, flickering effortlessly from the pure folk spirit of Tap At My Window to the lyrical majesty of The Captain And The Hourglass. Unbelievably, second album I Speak Because I Can took her music to a completely new level, throwing a shroud of foreboding guitars until what emerged were the dark grandeurs of Devil's Spoke and Alpha Shallows. Since then, Marling has released three further studio albums, none of which have registered particularly with me. I'm not sure if that says more about them or me. It was with trepid high hopes that I delved into Semper Femina and I was not disappointed.
As the title might suggest, the album is an exploration of femininity and the relationships that women experience with one another. Opening track Soothing is the only one to deal with Marling in relation to a man. A disjointedly sultry number, it talks of the temptation of a former lover, a strangely familiar yet mysterious presence that forces Marling to overcome lust with the love that she feels for herself. Lightly strummed tiptoes approach before being cast away by Marling's cacophonous rejection. From this point onwards, men are inconsequential to Semper Femina – not that it is anti-men, merely that it is an existential commentary on women in relation to each other.
Marling's vocal incandescence has never been more evident than it is on Wild Fire, an ode to the meek adoration of a teenage alpha female that evokes Dylan in its softer moments and is angelic in its crescendos. Nouel continues the theme of distanced adoration, rejecting the classic interpretation of a woman as a muse for artists and framing them as a more magnificent spectacle than any work of art can be – nobody can capture what is infinitely changeable and unique. Their femininity is the true masterpiece. Don't Pass Me By is a beautifully constructed track with its heart in the Dusty Springfield classics of the sixties. Whilst feeling new, it also has the texture of something that you have always known. It is truly remarkable.
To say this is a return to form for Marling would be a massive undersell. Semper Femina eclipses everything that has gone before. Gone is the well-trodden English folk sound, replaced by a laid back American twang. Marling's voice sounds tremendous and she takes every opportunity to push it to its limits. The earthy tone is not completely lost though as sounds of nature course through the album giving the record a feeling of forgotten simplicity, of returning to the root of things. This clarity is echoed in Marling's musical accompaniments, her virtuosity undeniable yet firmly cast in a supporting role to allow the potency of her words to take effect.
As I listened, I could not get the song River by Joni Mitchell out of my head. In that song, Mitchell laments the winter lost in her native Canada as she records in Los Angeles chasing money and fame. Prior to recording Semper Femina, Marling spent a long period in Los Angeles herself seeking, contrary to Mitchell, anonymity and a release from a high pressure industry. This album marks a close to that period of her life, a rebirth and refocussing on the important things in her life – primarily, connections. As much as this is an album about the nature of being a woman, it is also about the nature of being alone in the world. Not lonely, but self-reliant. Every song encounters another person that has entered Marling's life and, in each track, the focus swings back to maintaining her sense of independence. It is a powerful message and not a word is wasted in giving us this insight into Marling's life.
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
Lyric Of The Week
“You always say you love me most//When I don’t know I’m being seen//Well maybe someday when God takes me away//I’ll understand what the fuck that means”
Rambling no more
Marling's feminine mystique
Brings her back to life
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