Semper Femina is an excerpt from a verse in the epic poem Aeneid by Roman poet Virgil: “varium et mutabile semper femina.” Translated to English by 17th century poet John Dryden, it reads “Woman’s a various and a changeful thing.“ Shortened to Semper Femina, it means simply “Always a woman.”
For English folk-rock artist Laura Marling, this is an affliction to be revered. Her sixth studio album, released this past Friday through her own label More Alarming Records, takes this constant state of womanhood as its fulcrum, celebrating femininity and womanhood with her ever luminous songwriting.
The many single releases leading up to Semper Femina’s album drop never quite served as adequate explanation for the full LP to come. “Wild Fire” has all the poetry and sophistication of an acoustic Linda Ronstadt, and “Soothing” seemed to rely entirely on jazzy bass and drums composition and a swelling string section. No one track release could have done it justice; so rich and complex is Marling’s musical vision here.
Still, in spite of itself, Semper Femina is an incredibly coherent experience thematically. Interviews track Laura Marling’s influences as ranging from the art of Camille Claudel to the psychoanalytic work of Lou Andreas-Salomé. According to Marling, her songwriting process for this album was decidedly more conceptual than usual. She began writing about womanhood from the perspective of men, but quickly came to realize and embrace the fact that she was writing from her own perspective as well. The result is a blended viewpoint that often flits between mental spaces.
This integration of masculine and feminine energy features interestingly in her instrumentation. Laura Marling’s fixation with the electric guitar has been quite clear over the course of her career, but it is here that she finally plunges head first into the sound she loves. Tracks sych as “Nothing, Not Really” and “Don’t Pass Me By” evoke the calmer stylings of Eric Clapton, while “Always This Way” echoes the light complexities of Chet Atkins’ playing. Semper Femina subverts the masculinity imbued over the years into the electric guitar.
This album enters into the record as a key piece of the emerging canon of new folk country coming out of unexpected indie and alternative artists. Marling’s comfort with the sounds of country mark the Brit’s formidable maturity, far flung from the playful Alas I Cannot Swim songbird of a little under a decade ago.
Her husky alto seems to have grown quite elderly in the the relatively short span of her career. She and her voice have both aged beautifully, though perhaps Marling doesn’t quite believe that to be true. “25 years, nothing to show for it, nothing of any weight,” She groans on “Always This Way,” bemoaning that even at 25, she has yet to feel the significance of her life take shape.
Whether or not she believes in the impact of her work, Marling crafts some of the most elegant lyrics of her career in Semper Femina. In a state of unapproachable resolve on “Wild Fire,” she issues the challenge “Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?” The sheer lyrical genius in lines such as “We love beauty ‘cause it needs us to / It needs our brittle glaze” on “The Valley” could sit just as easily in poetry books, though there’s nothing quite like hearing Marling sing them.
“The Valley,” a song just as much about physical space as it is about love from afar, recalls the music of the Laurel Canyon scene of the early ‘70s. Dainty feminine harmonies lace together many elegantly short verses of mourning and morning. Songs such as “The Valley” or “Nouel” could have been at home on an early Mitchell album or Crosby, Stills and Nash record.
On her upper left thigh in unadorned red script, Laura Marling has tattooed the latin Semper Femina, her most recent addition. Clearly, Virgil’s phrase has been imbued with a great deal of intimate sentimentality for Marling. With the release of this record, her most cerebral and personally removed to date, the confidential, familiar nature of her intellectual themes strike a beautiful balance.