On 2015’s Short Movie Laura Marling was transitioning from folky hipster to something new. Living in LA had brought with it new insights, new stories to tell and new ways to express them, on an album that echoed Beatnik poetry and the quiet empathy of Joni Mitchell. On her sixth album, released tomorrow, it’s clear that journey is at an end, and Marling has begun a whole new chapter.
Semper Femina is a different creature to it’s predecessor. The stand-out on her previous album was ‘I Feel Your Love’, a country road-trip that remains one of Marling’s most enjoyable works. Semper has no equivalent. This is not a series of snapshots but more a tapestry, a single narrative that is expressed through a myriad of styles, sometimes surprising, and other times familiar.
‘Soothing’ opens the album on stuttering drums, and ascending bass spirals. It’s a downtempo opener, again in contrast to her past works which tend to open with more of a bang.
It’s a deliberate choice that pays off as the song flourishes with gorgeous strings and Marling’s own pithy lyrics, which go into something a little more conflicted. “I banish you with love” she coos nonchalantly, as if that’s no big deal.
It is her most expansive sound to date, and yet indistinct. There is a muffled quality to the album that may frustrate some, but makes for an intimate, sensual listen, and also adds to a feminine softness that colours the album.
This is a record for and about women, but not to the detriment of men. It’s refreshing to hear songs firmly away from the male gaze, and all the clichés that come with it.
It’s also easy to read this as a declarative piece on feminism, and even on LGBT relationships. However that isn’t really in the character of the album. This is a warm, gentle, and often indistinct set of songs, that don’t strive to communicate any one emotion to any one demographic. This is personal, not political, and I for one am okay with that.
There’s certainly a little conflict at the album’s heart. Marling ruminates on lovers gone away, and sometimes ones she just wishes had gone away. ‘Wild Fire’ features some seriously off beats that drop and fall with an irregular rhythm, and sound for the world like the nicker of a horse. It’s probably coincidental that Marling describes her muse as “a lonely beast / a kind heart“, though also not the most flattering description I could think of. Unless the song is actually about a time when Laura Marling worked as some kind of stable-hand, but that’s fairly unlikely I’d say.
This grappling with narrative is exactly what makes Semper Femina pop. It’s a deeply plotted, abstract piece that is a joy to ponder over. It doesn’t give up it’s secrets easily. Instead, unreeling stories that are playful but sometimes painfully sincere.
What makes the journey worthwhile is Marling’s own warmth and humanity as a guide. Nowhere is Marling more wonderful than ‘The Valley’, a hymn-like lament. It’s clear Laura Marling is enjoying being back in the UK, and the English countryside hasn’t been so lovingly painted since Goldfrapp’s Seventh Tree.
Semper Femina is much like the English summer itself: warm, inviting and inscrutable.
Semper Femina is available on 10/3/17. Laura Marling is on tour throughout March.