English singer-songwriter Laura Marling’s latest offering to British folk is Semper Femina (translates from Latin to Always A Woman), her 6th album since 2008 and a quietly bold ode to womanhood. “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” was the heavily requoted tagline from Marling preceding the album’s release, explaining the near-exclusive female subjects and perspectives in every song. Semper Femina makes both delightful and thought-provoking listening.
‘Soothing’ is the perfect album kick-starter; the sound of fast-approaching subsonic footsteps on a bass drum followed by a tantalising, fragmented bass guitar hook that never really goes anywhere is fantastically intriguing. In the chorus Marling knowingly ruffles her listener with wavering, high-pitched vocals, the music teetering deliciously on a balance beam of tonality. The effect is made even more delectable in the comparative comfort of track #2, ‘The Valley’ – Marling lets you sink down into a warm bed of folky goodness; reaching the ‘soothing’ she was searching for in the album opener. (Such a juxtaposition of tracks supports the argument in favour of forgoing shuffle mode…)
The variance of third and first person in the lyrics makes a refreshing change from the voices of pop, who are by and large rather self-centred sounding, and makes for a less-than-straightforward exercise in lyrical interpretation. Marling leads us away from the naming and shaming culture so often seen in pop; for example the ‘she’ of The Valley who ‘mourns the morning’ could be Marling, the listener, or a fictional character.
For an album of relative track-to-track sameness – a commendation rather than a criticism, since a sonically cohesive body of work requires great dextrous sensitivity – it traverses emotional landscapes, inducing tears in one song, smiles the next. These are conscientious songs that contain a whole host of sensibilities, and paint a multitude of emotional colours upon a canvas of homely, English acoustic folk instrumentation.
Bluesy coolness à la Norah Jones is present on ‘Wild Fire’, where a gently strumming acoustic guitar is used sparingly and coupled with lazy, bassy snare. ‘She keeps a pen behind her ear / She’s got something she really really needs to say / She puts it in a notepad, she’s gonna write a book some day / Of course the only part I want to read is about her time spent with me’ is the stand-out refrain.
‘Don’t Pass Me By’ is like a slow gypsy dance, with eccentric, Eastern European plucked violin and string flurries, its lyrics wandering like a stream of consciousness. ‘Take my old tunes / Turn it into something new, something good / Please don’t pass me by…/ Will you love me if I put up a fight?’. On ‘Always This Way’ Marling demonstrates her intrinsic knowledge of melodic shape which has been integral to her success as a folk artist. The opening tune is instantly catchy, the sliding guitar hanging lovingly on the last chord of the progression. The track is far from groundbreaking in terms of style or instrumentation, but the appeal is instead in its sweet simplicity. The only track that could potentially be ‘filler’ is penultimate ‘Nouel’ but it would be previous to make such a grand statement at this stage after only a few listens- no doubt the song will reveal intricacies over time.
Semper Femina closes with the distorted moans of electric guitar on ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ and Marling exploits the instrument with sensitivity and expertise to sensuous effect. To quote the song, we are left ‘basking in the afterglow’ of her newest creation; a fleshed out, easy-listening yet beautifully expansive album.
Semper Femina by Laura Marling is available to pre-order now through Amazon and iTunes (release date 10 March 2017)