Semper Femina clocks in as Laura Marling’s sixth album, and with each release, she stands out further from the pack. Her last record, Short Movie, had Marling living in California and singing like a Californian. She gave interviews about cutting her ties and going on the road looking for adventure - both impressively assured and slightly disturbing. On Short Movie, Marling had not found whatever she was looking for, and her songs were powerful and unsettled. Semper Femina was also recorded in LA but exudes new Joni Mitchell levels of songwriting sophistication, Marling’s English voice set against the vast skies of another continent. It is also a less angry, more confident work, and her best yet.
The album’s title reworks an infamous line from Virgil, “Varium et mutabile semper femina” - “Woman is forever changeable and fickle.” Marling snips its meaning so it becomes “Woman is forever”, a declaration of intent. The nine substantial and complex songs on Semper Femina are narrated by women, whose identities mesh with Marling’s, examining who they are, where they are going, what they will become.
‘Soothing’ is a simmering retort to an unwanted lover, from a narrator who may or may not be alive. A brooding acoustic guitar riff sends out a warning like a threshold hex. ‘The Valley’ is a mellow, troubled ballad slowed down to a heat haze crawl, with strings and softly plucked guitar rolling around a lyric concerning about a woman who is “down there in the valley”. The energetic ‘Wild Fire’ brings out the Joni in Marling most strongly, as her voice drifts across the Atlantic and takes on a soulful edge. She sounds fantastic, the song relaying conversations with another woman, a lover possibly, who is warned: “You can stop playing it all out on me.”
‘Wild Once’ is a finger-picked contemplation, as Marling seeks to recover the lost wildness of childhood: “You are wild, and you must remember” she sings, her measured vocals covering hidden menace. On the contemplative ‘Always This Way’ Marling declares her intention of making her own way, despite: “Twenty-five years and nothing to show for it.” The final song “Nothing, Not Nearly’, featuring a growling electric guitar, could be an epitaph to her time in the States. She declares that the only thing she learned “In a year when I didn’t smile, not really” is that nothing matters more than love; “No, nothing, no, not nothing, not nearly”. It is seriously rousing.
Semper Femina shows Laura Marling continuing to grow in stature as songwriter. She has an ability to weave narrative songs in an out of her own life to create a powerful picture of people in place and time. Building on her formative folk origins has allowed to her to write original songs about what she knows, which seem to have been around forever. There will be another six albums before we know it.