“Distinct and Powerful”
Nowadays, people sometimes find it hard to find a place for folk music. For some, folk’s authenticity has been moulded into mediocrity and banality, physically manifested into a figure(s) on a stage with a guitar (or a banjo), whose songs have a sheen of pop to them. These figures include: Mumford & Sons, Jake Bugg, Noah & the Whale and many more.
Fortunately, there are some artists – Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn and Bon Iver – who are rooted in the folk spirit of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, but then subvert the tradition to enact a modern and relevant version of the genre.
Laura Marling’s sixth studio album Semper Femina epitomises these characteristics – it is distinct and powerful. Marling is her usual self-analytical self, but this internality is also put next to a wider, more general view of womanhood. Appropriately, the album title, ‘Semper Femina’ comes from Virgil and translates to ‘always woman’.
Opener, ‘Soothing’ slowly burns into a convulsion of drums and slithery strings, but all the time a potent bass holds the rhythm together. It’s an intriguing opener but to realise what Marling is actually trying to say is a whole different matter. ‘I banish you with love’ she sings. A contradictory line where Marling seems to be ridding herself of someone – a boyfriend? A woman? Herself? The video that accompanies the single brings no real answers: a sensual bed with latex-covered, frolicking women. Yet, the lack of clarity creates an eerie tension between sound and content, who seem to be resisting and surrendering to each other simultaneously.
This mysterious tension continually permeates the album and as questions become more common, answers become more mythical. Though, this does not make the album hard to connect to as songs explore an enigmatic, fractured femininity – a relatable state for all. Indeed, ‘Always This Way’ starts with palm muted strumming that descends into a minor tone of guitar twirls. This fluctuation from a light tone to a more melancholic one seems to be a reflection of a passing friendship, but why it has passed remains unanswered. ‘The Valley’ is equally ambiguous. An ode to an unnamed woman, where light fingerpicking is combined with soothing strings. There is no melancholy but subtle romanticism as the lyrics talk of ‘innocence’ that drags us back from the ‘drooling gaze’.
Despite the fog of mystery, the absence of masculinity is a clear aspect of the album. Stereotypically, a ‘drooling’ gaze originates from a man but every pronoun is feminine in Sempa Femina. There is not one utterance about any man. Of course, this is intentional and I think Marling plays with us by doing this. On my first listen of the album’s strongest track, ‘Wild Fire’, I assumed the Marling was addressing a man. On a second listen and a quick look at the lyrics I realised that Marling takes on a personae. My first thoughts were that this was a masculine persona but then I think Marling would be rolling her eyes at me if I really believed that. Anyhow, it is a persona that observes Marling herself, who sits and ‘keeps a pen behind her ear’. The languid opening chords suddenly begin to flicker as Marling sneers-‘I just know your mama’s kind of sad/ and your papa’s kind of mean’ – and cries – ‘You can stop playing that shit out on me’. It is a song that spurts out feminine vulnerability, un-knowability and passion with unapologetic zeal.
This exciting route of femininity juxtaposed with ambiguity does become lethargic in tracks like ‘Wild Once’ and ‘Next Time’. I should say that the lyrics are not any less spirited, but the general production choices (the producer is Blake Mills) hardly create sparks of excitement, with old style, Nick Drake-esque guitar pickings and Marling’s slightly unpalatable, monotone speak-singing voice. Yet, it is quickly forgotten in the closing track, ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’, which begins with a lurching surge of an electric guitar and a triumphant return of Marling’s singing voice that holds an urgency by reminding us ‘we’ve not got long […] to bask in the afterglow’. Through this line, Marling ends her album with its first definite statement: life, in all its fiery, passionate immensity is fleeting and so, we must revel it.
Verdict: Femininity is hardly a ground-breaking subject for an album. Yet, Marling approaches it with intelligent, idiosyncratic flare. It’s not quite a masterpiece, but I don’t believe it’s meant to be. The male gaze placed femininity onto the pedestal, Marling grounds it into her own reality.