Laura Marling - Semper femina Album Review
It’s often difficult to not deconstruct a female singer/songwriter’s music from the perspective of their gender, especially when it’s often a disservice to the deeper meaning and value of the music’s message. But with Laura Marling, her gender has rarely been a source of commentary, but a source of inspiration. On Semper femina (translated from Latin as “Always a Woman,”) Marling weaves together nine songs that explore the narratives of women in a cohesive way she hasn’t attempted on previous records. Gone from this album are any standout singles, but rather a 42 minute portrait of the intricacies of the female identity. It dispels the one-dimensional characterization of women that still seep into mainstream and independent music with as much conviction as it does elegance.
The album’s opener, “Soothing,” balances sparse guitar picking and bass in its verses with gliding strings in the chorus. This push and pull between the instrumentation reflects the song’s narrator as she navigates her romantic desires with the need to distance herself from the man who seeks to capitalize on her sexuality.
This concept of balancing desire to achieve a healthy love continues onto “The Valley,” where Marling sings, “We love beauty 'cause it needs us to / It needs our brittle glaze / And innocence reminds us to / Cover our drooling gaze.” Marling’s character in this song exists within the beauty created from the mess of combining love and desire as the track blends the guitar and strings separated in the previous track. The following song “Wild Fire” shifts the idea of desires from a figurative theme to a literal one with the line, “Are you trying to make a cold liar out of me? / You want to get high? / You overcome those desires, before you come to me.” Marling’s laidback, alt-country approach to the instrumentation on the track lends to the cut-and-dry perspective the song’s narrator has on the conditions of love, and further explores how her romantic interest in the song is held back by personal issues that keep them from understanding what it means to truly love someone.
Marling effortlessly continues to build on these themes again as the album moves on to “Don’t Pass Me By.” Her echoing electric guitar reflects the longing Marling’s narrator sings for throughout the song, yet as the narrator realizes her struggle to fall in love is ultimately not worth it in the end, singing, “Can you love me if I put up a fight? / Is it something you make a habit of? / That's not what I need from love, right now.”
The album returns to its earlier reflection on the dichotomy between love and desire, with Marling striping the instrumentation down to more pensive and lighthearted finger picking. She sings of parting from a lover for having different understandings of what their love was, saying, “I'd like to know if she had to go / Or if she made a point to.” As it’s revealed the two were together for 25 years, Marling begins to enter darker territory on the album, forcing the listener to question what the cost of love really is.
The album is accented with the quiet and mystic “Wild Once.” Marling’s voice hovers over the meditative finger picking, her lyrics exploring the inner life of a mother who has become disenchanted with the role she’s taken on by raising a family. She harkens to a time when she was younger where she was wild and “chased stones.” This is later implied to be diamonds of an engagement ring, suggesting that the chase and adventure of finding someone to fall in love with was more fulfilling than actually being married.
The following song, “Next Time,” hauntingly picks up where the narrator left off, singing, “It feels like a long time since I was free / It feels like the right time to take that seriously,” and “I don't want to be the kind / Struck by fear to run and hide / I'll do better next time.” Marling slowly evolves the song to reveal her narrator is nearing the end of her life, with the line, “I can no longer close my eyes / While the world around me dies / At the hands of folks like me / It seems they fail to see / There may never / Next time be,” realizing she will never be able to redo the mistakes she has made from not understanding the role love should play in her life.
Though open to interpretation, it seems as though the singer from “Wild Once” and “Next Time” is the titular subject of the following track “Nouel.” The singer says, “She sings along to sailor's song / When she's gone I sing along / But it doesn't sound the same,” implying the passing of a woman. Later in the song she sings, “She'd like to be the kind of free / Women still can't be alone,” referencing “Wild Once”. Towards the end, the singer again references a previous song with “Oh Nouel, it hurts like hell / When you're so afraid to die,” referencing the fear of the singer from “Next Time.”
Marling strips down the instrumentation again on this song to bring a focus to the lyrics, which serves as the thematic summation of the album. Marling paints Nouel as a symbol for womanhood in general with the lines, “She speaks a word and it gently turns / To perfect metaphor / She likes to say I only play / When I know what I'm playing for.” It’s Marling’s first lines sung purely from a biographical perspective, stating that the metaphor of women and their complexity serve as her muse for her songwriting.
The album ends with “Nothing, Not Nearly,” the only true musical experimentation Marling really takes with the album, where she melds stream-of-consciousness style singing punctuated with roaring guitars. She passionately calls out, “We've not got long, you know / To bask in the afterglow / Once it's gone it's gone / Love waits for no one,” a synthesis of the themes she's explored throughout the album.
Semper femina is a breakthrough for Marling, fully embracing the album format and graduating from the catchy, passionate tracks from previous albums that, while tied together by similar production styles, rarely worked off one another thematically. The album is not without faults, taking few risks compositionally and failing to really build musically to any sort of climax or payoff.
But Marling’s lyrics and vocal performances are so entwined throughout the album that it begs to be returned to, asking the listener to relisten in order to dig through the lyrical content for even more secrets and meanings beyond what lies on the surface. Marling has proved herself again to be a unique, and needed, voice in the singer/songwriter scene.
Chandler Copenheaver is a junior majoring in Public Relations and minoring in Civic and Community Engagement. To contact him, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.