Secret Meeting score: 85
by Mark Jackson
Laura Marling’s sixth studio album, Semper Femina, is a classic collection of songs concentrated in the heart of the English folk tradition. Subverting this tradition, however, is the record’s subject matter; a concept album that intelligently celebrates femininity and allows the artist to creatively question her own sense of womanhood. Semper Femina is Marling’s most accomplished and interesting collection of songs to date and keeps the genre both relevant and exciting for the listener.
If you have previously discounted and stereotyped Marling as a modern day pop singer, based on her former associations and relationships with Noah & the Whale’s Charlie Fink (producer of her Mercury Prize nominated debut Alas, I Cannot Swim) and later with Marcus Mumford, you would be advised to hastily schedule in a revisit to the 27 year old’s six album back catalogue. Any such review will help demonstrate Marling’s rapid rise from industry pigeonholed female nu-folk Mumford and Sons alternative, to skilful folk guitar virtuoso and accomplished singer-songwriter – yet, she is far more advanced and innovative than all the early and lazy comparisons. The increasingly sparse and creative arrangements of Marling’s songs have acted to give her voice and words the chance to flourish, and nowhere is this more evident than on her current record.
The moulding of artists by ‘industry insiders’ (one suspects, men) into something that they are not, happens all too often and appears an inevitability for female artists. Pressured to bow to the overly sexualised nature of the industry where women are judged as much on their looks, daringness to reveal flesh, and ability to amass legions of online followers, as opposed to musical talent, social consciousness and basic songcraft.
Importantly, this has never happened to Laura Marling, who finally appears to be rid of the shackles of those early ‘nu-folk’ comparisons. She now stands alone (certainly within British music) as a credible exponent of modern, relevant folk music. Marling never allowed the early links to affect the quality and integrity of her music. She has stayed true to her roots and produced a quantity of work which would usually bestow the title of prolific. Linking an artist tenuously with a ‘sound’ that does not exist must be infuriating to live out and has lasting effects on how they are perceived by those not au-fait with their work. That is a crying shame because in Laura Marling, many people are missing out on one of the finest talents this country has produced in recent memory.
Like previous albums, Once I Was an Eagle and Short Movies, Semper Femina is an accomplished collection of beautifully crafted folk songs. The most significant difference here however is that all of Marling’s romance and lust is centred on a female protagonist from start to finish. The fact that she writes with a female character to narrate this piece is hugely important. Previously, the muses of her songs were exclusively male, but here she celebrates her femininity and that of her closest friends for whom she expresses strong feelings for throughout. She also questions feelings for another woman for the first time on record. This shouldn’t feel like a bold move for an artist in 2017.
The album opener, Soothing, is musically dissimilar to anything she’s written previously. Two bass guitars jostle with increasing intensity for primary position atop of lazy drumming, with her traditional acoustic guitar playing is largely absent. It’s an opener that emphasises the difference from her previous work. The opening lyrics, ‘Oh, my hopeless wanderer, you can’t come in, you don’t live here anymore’, and the repeated ‘I banish you with love’ also appear to reference Marling seeking something new (a relationship?), and looking for possible closure on previous experiences. ‘I need soothing’ however suggests perhaps that support from elsewhere will be needed in moving on.
Second track, The Valley, is more traditionally Marling. Gentle, fingerpicked guitar that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell record, matched with a crisp, calm and seemingly effortless vocal delivery, is comparable only with artists far more advanced in years. Lyrically, we are introduced adoringly to the female muse for the first time – “I love you in the morning, I love you in the day, I’ve loved you in the evening, if only she would stay.”
Even when she is not talking directly about or to another woman, there is a feminine feel throughout: ‘Of course there’s things upon the Earth that we really must try to defend- a lonely beast, a kind heart, something weak and on trend’ she sings on the fantastic single Wild Fire, capturing beautifully the female instinct to care for and protect that which needs supporting.
Sonically too, the album is softer and warmer than the previous Short Movies. Next Time and Nouel stand out as particularly sound demonstrations of Marling’s outstanding talent as a guitarist, and producer Blake Mills’ (Conor Oberst, Alabama Shakes, John Legend, Perfume Genius) ability to enhance her work with the subtlest of string arrangements.
The album’s best track is kept till last. Nothing, Not Really brings together all the greatest elements of the songs that have gone previously, namely melodies that on first listen prick the listeners’ attention before subsequently appearing to have lasted forever. Marling is once more reflecting on endings or fresh starts, ‘The only thing I learnt in a year where I didn’t smile once, not really. No nothing matters more than love, no nothing, not nearly.’ The chorus advises that life is short – ‘We’ve not got long you know, to bask in the afterglow’ – and the album bemoans that ‘love waits for no one’ in its final moments. Perhaps Marling is concluding that one should surround themselves with valuable and loving relationships, ones which at present for her are significantly feminine.
What is clearer perhaps is that with Semper Femina, Marling has cemented her status as a modern day ‘classic’ singer songwriter. From her raw beginnings, which displayed her obvious talents, she has grown both lyrically and sonically to become totally accomplished in her craft, and confident in delivering new and intriguing concepts. Semper Femina – Always A Woman.