by Devon Armstrong
With her mix of effortless Bonnie Raitt vocals and brave experimentation with the perception of her as creator, Laura Marling’s Semper Femina is a daring feat of musical manipulation that seems to pay off for the majority of the album.
Besides Soothing, the opening to the album, the first song to really catch my attention was The Valley, an oddly uplifting, ASMR monologue by Marling’s omniscient voice, describing the emotions of a young woman who ‘mourns the morning dew, and the newness that it brings’. The pastoral scenes painted by this song invite a tone of simplicity to the psychological complexity echoed by its lyrics, and the soft but noticeable violin in the background are reminiscent of the nostalgia that imbued Marling’s 2010 song Goodbye England (Covered in Snow). It would seem, looking at past albums, that Marling often takes her environment as a source of song-writing inspiration, inviting a folky, Celtic feel to her music. Semper Femina is no different, having been written while Marling was travelling, after her female-driven podcast Reversal of the Muse. With guests such as HAIM, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, Laura created a conversation about women in the music industry. Unfortunately, Semper Femina doesn’t seem to play with this trope as fully as one would like, with Marling playing safe in several places. Always This Way is a track in which Marling’s vocal trills at the end of each line, suggesting that the generic lyrics could well have belonged to a traditional folk song that has been given a boost with the electric guitar and deep bass in the background. In fact, this is possibly how Marling gets away with such flat, uninteresting lyrics, dressed up with a production that suits her low, comforting voice: ‘at the end of the day/ at least i can say/ i made my own way/ and my debts have been paid’.
Luckily, Marling is redeemed by the following track Wild Once. Wonderfully weird, this ode to childhood freedom is at once creepy and exciting. Interspersed with spoken word by Marling herself, showing the contrast between her actual accent and her singing accent, this unusual aspect enhances the effect of the song; having a mothering, questioning voice lisp different lines at the listener is like being lightly chastised by a loving parent, an integral part of childhood japes. Not so much nostalgic as celebration of past liberation, it appears to be a call to action for one to cast off chains of a boring world and resort back to the wilderness of childhood. Here, though, there is an issue – though not one that is necessarily problematic, more fascinating for long-time spectators of Marling’s works and artistic personality. Marling casts herself in one song as a nurturing force, and in another as a cynical critic of love and how we treat our loved ones. Wild Fire is an angsty rolling lament that fits into the country genre, reminding me of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ album Raising Sands – her song Nothing, Not Nearly could be a lost Bonnie Raitt song, a Dusty Springfield B-side. Just as Robert Plant successfully rebranded himself from Led Zeppelin front-man to sensitive, versatile man of many genres, Laura Marling shows off a range of interests in music, creating a more adventurous album than ever before.
While some may find this album less like traditional Marling – indeed less traditional altogether – songs such as Don’t Pass Me By and Soothing are almost psychedelic and really work with her caramel vocals, the words slipping out as though she were merely speaking them to a lover in bed. The lyrics to the latter song, while a little disturbing (‘Oh, some creepy conjurer/ who touched the rim/ whose hands are in the door), are spoken breathlessly. Accompanied by the latex-clad video, there is not a doubt that Semper Femina has glimpses of Marling attempting to rebrand herself, or at least experimenting with different images – her eroticism, her updated folk tunes and heavy use of electric instruments almost accomplishes what she seems to be going for. Explaining her writing process, Marling said ‘I started out writing Semper Femina as if a man was writing about a woman, and then I thought; “it’s not a man, it’s me”. I don’t need to pretend it’s a man to justify the intimacy, or the way I’m looking and feeling about women. It’s me looking specifically at women and feeling great empathy towards them, and by proxy, towards myself’. There is a level of self-exploration in her crafting of lyrics, playing with themes of gender and sexuality as well as the taboo and disturbing. Yet, the lingering laziness, her safeness in choosing songs such as Always This Way and Next Time – though not poor songs in themselves – stops the album from gelling completely. By no means a failure, and obscenely pleasant to relax with a glass of wine to, Semper Femina is a half-jump into the dark abyss of the unknown; Marling seems so sure of her brave exploration into newness until she has made the jump, and then she is saved by her bungee rope, made of lilting acoustic tunes and predictable lyricism.