Laura Marling is a British singer-songwriter, specializing in acoustic-guitar based folk music. Her last two albums, 2013’s Once I Was an Eagle and 2015’s Short Movie, both received significant acclaim and showed two sides of Marling’s music – minimalist acoustic arrangements on the former, electric guitars on the later. Semper Femina arrives somewhere in between, blending folk with elements of jazz and pop and oscillating between pure voice + guitar tracks and ones with fuller, albeit quite gentle, arrangements. Linking all these songs together is the singular theme of women – women who are friends, lovers, mothers, inspirations and regrets.
The record opens with “Soothing”, a slinking, jazzier number, featuring two basses (one panned to each channel), with Marling’s delivery taking on a coy, intriguing tone. “The Valley” follows up with steadily building finger picking and harmonies before the song is enveloped by a large string section. “Many a morning I have woke / Longing to ask her what she’s mourning / Of course I know it can’t be spoke” Marling sings in reference to the song’s subject, a female friend mourning the death of her father. Her tone changes again on the third track, “Wild Fire”, which makes use of a cool, casual, conversational tone to dig into a friend. “You want to get high? / You overcome those desires, before you come to me” Marling scoffs before admitting “She’s gonna write a book someday / Of course the only part that I want to read / Is about her time spent with me”. So goes Semper Femina – personal songs about personal friends.
The first real glimpse we get of Marling herself is on “Always This Way”, another bouncing, bass-led track with the occasional electric guitar strum and soft violin feature. “25 years, nothing to show for it / 25 more, will I never learn from it / Never learn from my mistakes” Marling ponders somberly before an uplifting guitar riff breaths daylight back into the song. Even here, though, we sense Marling is seeing herself within the context of another woman’s shadow, perhaps a maternal figure – “Now she’s gone and I’m all alone / And she will not be replaced”. “Wild Once” is a reflection on youth and an offering of advice to younger women in her position, and “Next Time” is another rumination on regret and guilt for not appreciating those since past – “It feels like they taught us ignore diligently / I feel her, I hear her weakly scream”.
The penultimate “Nouel”, a line from which the album takes its title, is both the simplest track on the record (one guitar, one voice, no overdubs) and the most complete sketch Marling puts down. “She lays herself across the bed / The origine du monde / Slight of shoulder, long and legged / Her hair a faded blonde” Marling sings of her muse, adding to the list of strong, individualistic qualities described. But, like the rest of the record, the emotion both in her vocals and in her lyrics never wades past the breakers. When Marling is positive or sympathetic, she only graces poetic and stays more in the realm of naturalistic imagery and physical beauty. When her relationship with her subject is more complex, Marling’s tone and style is simplistic and matter-of-fact.
And here lies the fatal flaw of Semper Femina – almost every song is a portrait of a woman Marling is or was close to, but none of them make the listener care about those women. None of them bear the kind of raw, resonant emotion that can evoke our own relationships as the subjects of these tracks. Sonically, the album follows suit – always pretty, never really going for it. There is no bare, hollow moment of clarity, no driving, aggressive moment of angst or sadness. The album is about as exciting as floral wallpaper – pleasant to look at, not much of an artistic statement. While I can appreciate the cohesive theme and delicate arrangements, there isn’t enough going on elsewhere that elevates this past any other folk album – Jesca Hoop has stronger lyrics and demonstrates intriguing genre hopping and Julie Byrne‘s voice and melodies are more engaging and beautiful. Semper Femina is never bad but never stands out.
Score: 6 / 13