With Laura Marling's new album Semper Femina, forget the over-analysis - instead sit back and soak in its warm, beautiful haze.
It bears reminding ourselves – however disconcerting it might be – that Laura Marling has just turned 27. Nine years of unique, personal creativity on a broad canvas have passed since the release of Alas, I Cannot Swim. Critics have always been quick to admire Marling’s maturity, both in song and in lyric. But that point has been laboured with very good reason, and Semper Femina only reinforces such appreciation of her extraordinary talent.
Semper Femina – taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, “Varium et mutabile semper femina” (“fickle and changeable always is woman”) – is an album frequently sparse without being cold. Limited use of percussion. It is an indictment on the sexism that still pervades the music industry that Marling is not regularly recognised for her excellence as a guitarist. Here, she displays virtuosity in a range of styles. She is, perhaps, at here best when alone with her guitar, or at least when it is her closest companion. However, it is a record perhaps more multi-textured than any of her previous, bookended as it is by the haunting, early-morning swoon of Soothing and the electric noodling, (reminiscent of Neil Young) of Nothing, Not Nearly. On both and throughout the record, we are treated to that sumptuous voice, used to full effect – a personal relief for this reviewer, preferring the sweetness of Marling’s voice above the Dylanesque sprechgesacht that has punctuated previous albums.
This range of styles does not compromise the sense of the album as a whole. Each track is sealed with her signature, and comes across as a kind of essay, or meditation, on femininity. Indeed, there is barely a man in sight on the whole tapestry. The record as a whole is at once new and familiar, and with a wealth of human characteristics to (re-)discover – by turns reflective and playful, intelligent and sensual. She explores some of the very things that define our humanity – the need to be loved, the mistakes we make, and our vulnerability in both. The album’s warmth is no doubt rooted in her honesty. There is nothing disingenuous or affected in her lyrics.
Inasmuch as Semper Femina is about femininity generally, it perhaps suggests that feminism is ultimately about the freedom – the right – to discover one’s own identity. But far be it for me to define feminism, or to discern Marling’s understanding of her identity. Better to just enjoy her musings. Certainly, this appears to have been an ongoing process for Marling. Identity, of course is a complex matter, and often corrupted by the poisonous tendrils of this world. Aspects of who we are can be changeable, and Marling’s back catalogue suggests this is a fiercely individual pursuit for her – leading her to Hampshire to London to LA and a brief hiatus as a yoga instructor, to this latest snapshot of her explorations.
Marling has always rejected categorisation, recognising the undersell of simplicity. Her complex, enigmatic music and musings may unintentionally invite scrutiny and over-analysis – something of which we critics can be irritatingly guilty. Perhaps we should just sit back and soak in Semper Femina’s warm, beautiful haze.