Let me preface this review by saying I am in love with Laura Marling. I have been since 2013, when she enchanted the entire tent at Splendour in the Grass. Her songwriting shows wisdom and depth beyond her years, and many of her songs make me feel like they’ve been written just for me. I’ve often wondered how the hell Laura knows what’s going on in my life, and how she knows just what to say to make me feel better.
Having said that, her previous album Short Movie made me feel that she’d lost her way, which was the case. She said in a recent interview that she quit music to be a yoga teacher around that time, and her uncertainty came through in that album.
This is not the case for Semper Femina. The album is consistent, the arrangements strong, and the lyrics deep and stirring. Opener “Soothing” starts with a low drum beat, jaunty bass line, and layers slowly throughout the first verse, adding only her vocals, and then strings in the first chorus. The different percussion instruments paired with her high pitched vocals give the song a haunting feeling, and as she sings “I need soothing, my lips aren’t moving” in the second chorus, the strings add to this. The instrumental section between the bridge and the end of the song adds a new percussion line every few bars, while the bass line and strings continue as they were throughout the whole song.
“The Valley”, a slow ballad with a quick acoustic guitar line, and a string and bass arrangement doesn’t seem like much at the beginning. Marling’s vocals have a small range, she sings slowly, and the instruments repeat themselves throughout. But as the song builds, Marling’s lyrics tell a story:
“Perhaps she’s had too much of love, can be a sickly thing. That’s why she mourns the morning dew, and the newness that it brings. She sings in the valley in the morning, many a morning I have woke, longing to ask her what she’s mourning. Of course I know it can’t be spoke.”
These lyrics, combined with the strings’ key change, give me shivers up my spine. The first time I listened to this song, I had to stop what I was doing and close my eyes to experience it completely.
“Wild Fire” has an accusing tone in its lyrics, despite its pleasant and easy arrangement: “You always say you love me most, when I don’t know I’m being seen. Well maybe someday when God takes me away, I’ll understand what the fuck that means. I just know your mama’s kinda sad, and your papa’s kinda mean. I can take it all away, you can stop playing that shit out on me.” The last chorus has one hell of a key change and she repeats “Me,” until the song fades to an end.
“Wild Once” has a quick acoustic guitar line, a quick bass line, and a lower vocal register. Strings and keys are added to the arrangement as the song continues, but strips back down to strings and guitar only as her vocals gain urgency in the outro, as she sings: “Well there is something just beneath, there is something just beneath. Something shy and hard to see, it’s a ring that is clean. It’s a ring.”
The rest of the album is a mix between upbeat, acoustic, and heavy string-arrangements in “Next Time” and “Nouel”, and the slower, nostalgic “Nothing, Not Nearly” with a chorus sending a warning to others and her past self:
“The only thing I learnt in a year, where I didn’t smile once, not really. Nothing matters more than love, no, nothing, no, not, nothing no, not nearly. We’ve not got long, you know. To bask in the afterglow. Once it’s gone it’s gone. Love waits for no one.”
The album is only nine songs long, but has the impact of an album twice that length. The mixture of story-telling, despair, and wanting in these songs – mixed with layered, dense string arrangements – makes it feel longer, like a long journey through someone’s diary.
It’s always going to be hard for me to be objective about Laura Marling. But this album is (objectively) one of her strongest, and one of the year’s best to date. I haven’t had an album grab me like this – and make me listen to it on repeat – in a very long time. Given its feminist themes and the title that – when loosely translated – means “Always female” Semper Femina will be remembered for being a commentary of its time. Remember that aspect of it, it’s important. But also remember the way you felt the first time you listened to it. That’s where the real magic comes from.
Review Score: 9.6 out of 10.
Semper Femina is out now.