Laura Marling - Semper Femina
Mutable is the word for Laura Marling. Now far-flung from her roots as a nu-folk darling and nearly a decade removed from the chirrupy uke of “5 Years Time”, she has charted a crafty musical course through full-on Mumford melodrama, Joni Mitchell-esque tone poetry, and the occasional Nashville twang, all on an exploratory quest that’s spanned both sides of the Atlantic. On her sixth record, Semper Femina, Marling returns with a panoramic study of feminine space, eschewing male pronouns entirely in an effort to reimagine our assumptions about the male-as-default song subject and re-chart the trajectory of an artist who has negotiated much of her most sought after independence through the very same relationships that constrict her. “It’s something you can’t explain”, she admits on album standout “Wild Once”. And half the fun of the album is listening to her try.
That lack of clarity is never entirely resolved on Marling’s latest, relying instead on obfuscation and an ever-changing style fitting for an album that mulls deeply over identity and self-reflection. “Semper Femina” is Latin for “Always a woman”, itself a canny remix of Virgil’s assertion that “fickle and changeable always is woman”, and echoed across the wide array of female relationships Marling observes. “The Valley”, for instance, features Marling’s voice hovering eerily over gentle instrumentation, a softer, less sinister permutation of the classic “O Superman”. The song’s narrative, a woman visiting town who opts not to contact Laura, despite the fact that she knows “she has my number right”, could almost double as a More Life outtake, but here the moment mined for something less obvious, the strained relationship between a woman who may have had “too much of love”, and the realization that the changes which accompany adulthood are often synonymous with revision.
For Marling, herself 27 and entering into the swing of life’s second act, there’s a palpable sense of anxiety that skirts this diverse selection of song styles. She’s made a career of slipping into different voices and augmenting her sound with the experiences she’s accrued between projects. To her credit, tracks like “Soothing” showcase a willingness to experiment, offering a bass-y departure from Marling’s occasionally sterile compositions. Producer Blake Mills nurtures the exploratory impulse that marked her last project, Short Film, and those rippling guitar tones are a perfect match on “Nothing, Not Nearly”. However, the cloying “Always This Way” lopes along like so many of the episodes of this meandering final season of Girls, forcing a strange musical kumbaya in the midst of a broken relationship that has, after “25 years, nothing to show for it”. Elsewhere, Marling imbibes the freewheeling California attitude on twangy numbers like “Wild Fire” and “Nothing, Not Really”, where Marling’s husky croon and “midnight embers” finally start to feel like a bit of a put-on. Without an over-arching narrative, and with the core relationships of the songs mostly left to cryptic assumptions, as in the subtly sensuous “Nouel” and the sapphic 1866 Courbet painting it evokes, the full impact of Marling’s lyrical decision to excise men from these songs never fully gestates. We know she’s still looking to the future, to “Next Time”, even as she confronts her own unkindness and the “warning signs” of a country that equates femininity with “ignore diligently”. But the opaque nature of these relationships, and Marling’s unwillingness to define them in voice or style, often leaves the songs feeling slight and cursory.
Much has been made of the all-female linguistic choices in this album, particularly in the wake of a film such as Moonlight, that itself relied on an all-black cast to tell a story that considered how race and sexuality, and their lack of discussion, can combine to create a claustrophobic isolation. Moonlight managed to use that exclusion to create a tangible sense of removed space, to illuminate the lives of minorities often caught in the erasure of identities. Marling, by applying the female gaze to these songs, manages to upend assumptions about the way women are expected to communicate with one another, and examines a new-found intimacy that emboldens, and at times confounds her. Perhaps its Marling’s own desire to keep us at bay, from her life and the women she can’t help but love, that so often holds this album at arm’s length.
At its best Semper Femina echoes the constant act of editing that is life in 2017, even if Marling’s lyrics often rely on her brand of ornate symbolism. For an artist who made her name on the gothic charm of 2008’s Alas, I Cannot Swim, it’s entirely disorienting to hear her join the millennial faction on “Always This Way” and “stare at the phone” like the rest of us. It’s a shame that these universal moments, the same ones that make the typically stoic Marling admit that a broken relationship has her questioning “if she had to go / or if she made a point to”, aren’t explored in more detail. Fickle and changeable her sound may be, but those changes do little to magnify Marling’s state of mind or activate change in these relationships beyond the novelty of her language, instead resting on her free-wheeling songcraft to patch up the crevices that are never truly explored. And yet, for all of the pain these relationships cause, for all the quarter-life loss and frustration that have left Marling wondering again if it will always be “this way”, she manages to remain resolute. The beauty of the second act, Marling discovers in “Nouel”, is that the story is far from over. Always a woman, then, “but you’ll be anything you choose” – “and long may that continue”.