Semper Femina Review: Laura Marling’s Female Gaze is Both Introspective and Inclusive

On Laura Marling’s sixth album, Semper Femina, it’s hard to tell where Laura Marling begins and the female characters she inhabits end. The concept album occupies itself with the female experience from a female perspective, with Marling both inserting and retracting herself from the narrative with a fluent set of pronouns. On the wonderfully lax ‘Wild Fire’, Lou Reed is revived via the wailing transience of the track’s guitar line as Marling merges two stories into one fluid train of thought. ‘She’s gonna write a book someday,’ quavers Marling. ‘Of course the only part that I want to read/Is about her time spent with me/Wouldn’t you die to know how you’re seen’.

Much of Semper Femina takes on this ambiguous tone and your translation of it will be determined by your own perspective. The album’s title is derived from Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid and translates to ‘always a woman’. In the original context of Virgil’s work, it is translated from a warning: ‘a woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing’. The quotation is patronising and derogatory towards women but under Marling’s guidance, it becomes a proud embrace. ‘Oh Nouel, you sing so well/Sing only for me,’ coos Marling on ‘Nouel’, ‘Fickle and changeable/Though I may always be’. Marling’s bibliography may be in danger of breaching pretension (especially to those averse to the overlap of music and artistic reference), but Semper Femina is in fact an extremely relatable album in the tales it presents. ‘Wild Once’ beautifies the inevitability of ageing as the wild spark of youth calms. And on the gorgeously ruminative ‘The Valley’, a once strong friendship becomes frayed but the reason behind it remains hidden. It’s indicative of Semper Femina as a whole; remarkably personal, and yet the stories are malleable enough that it could be you or I that she’s discussing.

Musically, Marling shifts slightly towards more ambitious compositions. ‘Next Time’ offers the gentle pluck of guitar before ascending into a union of pealing strings and acidic reverberation. ‘Always This Way’ mourns the loss of a friend over an uncomfortably bare acoustic hum. The most ambitious of them all is lead single ‘Soothing’. Marling’s gentle rasping notes undulate with mesmerising ease as a meandering bass line is absorbed by sunlit orchestration. Marling forces herself to reject a returning flame who she depicts as a ‘hopeless wanderer’ attempting to worm his way back into her affections with relentlessly prying fingers. His eventual exit provides a liberating catharsis. ‘I banish you with love,’ she sings. Once more, Marling’s actions become a matter of context and individual perspective; The rejection still stings but it’s softened by Marling’s nurturing delivery.

On Semper Femina, Marling operates under the vastness of female perspective and the act of stretching her boundaries makes for a beautifully endless exploration. She ponders a plethora of emotions and moods: grief, liberating happiness, self-depracating anxiety and acceptance. It presents flaws in the human condition, both in friendship and more obviously romance and yet as she tries to learn and perhaps outgrow the ‘fickle and changeable’ woman Virgil once described, she wisely realises that there are some aspects of our identity that we cannot escape. With this in mind, Marling’s alternative translation, ‘always a woman’, feels like the most fitting summary of Marling’s exquisitely far-reaching sixth album.

8/10

Image courtesy of The London Standard

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