On “How Can I”, from Laura Marling’s 2015 paean to life as a Los Angeles transplant Short Movie, the singer-songwriter issued a battle cry of sorts. “I put up my fists now,” she sang, “until I get what’s mine.” Still a somewhat timid presence on stage, the 27-year-old now commands the respect she deserves, and that record felt fuller, harder and bolder under her direction. Now on album number six, Semper Femina feels like a deliberate softening.
The title is borrowed from Virgil’s epic poem The Aenid, specifically the line "varium et mutabile semper femina," which an ungenerous translation would render as "woman is always fickle and changeable". In its truncated form, as it is tattooed on Marling’s leg, it is more simply expressed as “always a woman”, and it is the concept of both fixed and transient forms of femininity that informs her new record. It’s worth remembering that the English songwriter faced an early deluge of labels designed to make artists like Marling sound like something that floated in from an enchanted forest – ‘precocious’, ‘prodigious’, ‘ethereal’ – and as such, she is perhaps more familiar than most with the writing of women into archetypes by men.
The record immediately distinguishes itself from the rest of her work via opener and single “Soothing”, trading her brief foray into electrified indie rock for something altogether more sultry. A meandering, jazz-tinged bassline serves to tease out the inherent sex of the piece, and though musically it proves something of a red herring – much of Semper Femina revolves around the simpler folk arrangements of her earlier work – it does set the tone for a studied eroticism that prevails throughout. “Nouel” is particularly in its sway, the song’s narrator observing that “I’d do well to serve Nouel, whatever service I may be.” Still, pastoral folk stylings are never far from her repertoire. Both “The Valley” and “Wild Once” adhere to Marling’s adoration of the natural world, though the latter returns to reflections on assigned roles within femininity: “I might be someone’s daughter… but I was wild once.”
By the time “Nothing, Not Nearly” has reacquainted her with the electric guitar, the album has moved beyond quiet ruminations into quiet desperation, the pained cries of an artist trying to step out of themselves, only to find they have delivered another self-portrait. Perhaps that’s inevitable. Whatever her conclusions on the nature of the male gaze, Semper Femina finds the true source of its anxiety right at the death: the love of a sensual world that defines itself by the brevity of its passing. We should do well to include Laura Marling’s exquisite work in this bracket. “We’ve not got long, you know, to bask in the afterglow,” she sings. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Release: 10th March 2017, More Alarming Records