Laura Marling transforms Virgil’s criticising and warning Latin line from Aeneid ‘fickle and changeable always is woman’ to become a celebration of femininity in Semper Femina, her 6th studio album.
The first track, ‘Soothing’, constructs a sensuality with an ominous bass line and strings section that melts into her soft narrative. The bass carries a more jolly and upbeat rhythm to poignant lyrics in ‘Always This Way’ and slips into a small instrumental. Similarly, ‘Wild Fire’ makes use of instruments that weave in and out of one another. These two tracks present the empowering, determined, and questioning Laura Marling that we know.
There are expressions of strained relationships throughout the album, expressed explicitly in the line; “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”. Marling’s slinky exploration of sexuality, also shown in her directing debut of the music video to ‘Soothing’ featuring two latex clad women stretching over a bed and each other, continues into ‘Don’t Pass Me By’. Pizzicato strings jump in between her leering determination and apathy in her partner’s unfeeling actions.
The theme of relationships follows through to ‘The Valley’, with a beautiful British pastoral setting and emotive storytelling accompanied by a smooth string section against folk guitar plucking. The double bass is used here to underpin the discussion of sexuality that this album has embarked to explore in lyrics such as “we love beauty because it needs us to” and “innocence reminds us to cover our drooling gaze”.
There is a sense of calculated and tangible chord progressions in ‘Next Time’, complete with telling lyrics, while ‘Nouel’ stands as one of the strongest tracks of the album, partly because of its references to Virgil’s poem and other important cultural references. Marling deconstructs ideas of herself against Nouel’s character and the woman as muse. The fast paced plucking of this track is a nod to Marling’s musical and personal development across her albums.
‘Nothing, Not Nearly’ also uses the speak-singing vocal rhythm that is a frequent feature of Marling’s songwriting, and although it feels as if it could come from an earlier album, the distorted guitar comes to the front for a solo and separates it from anything Marling has really done before. This track closes the album with the sound of a guitar being put down and an entrance into the outside world suggested by the sound of birdsong; maybe something of the symbolic and metaphorical that can be read throughout this album.
Semper Femina’s use of relatable lyrics, cultural references allows for a calculated and accomplished peek into the spectrum of feminine identity and sexuality. Marling’s effortless gliding between vocal pitch, use of acoustic guitars mixed with orchestral sweeps, and varying perspectives throughout the album, sometimes signalled with subtle accent changes, encourages ideas of characters and the variety of women that Virgil tried to stand on. The ideas of nature, which Marling’s work is so often interested in, as well as a growing wisdom and maturity, sees Semper Femina achieve an awareness that there is much to discover in being both a woman and a being human.