Neither the pacing of Once I Was An Eagle swallowing Laura Marling whole, nor the forcefulness of Short Movie are present on her latest album Semper Femina. Marling has dovetailed her arrangements with her lyrics, leaving these two elements alone on the dance floor for a well-rehearsed recital. If the strings rise in dynamism, as do the lengths of the vocal phrasing. If a bass line broods and threatens the peace (‘Soothing’), Marling will approach it with a caution and grace unheard in similar arrangements that attempt to pull off the jazz/folk combination.
This dance of music and lyrics is most complex on ‘The Valley’, where guitar arpeggios meet Marling’s words like dawn: “I love you in the morning/ I love you in the day/ I love you in the evening/ If only she would stay.” Marling not only acknowledges the beauty in the valley, but recognizes it as fleeting, granting her a maturity she’s always hinted at, but never quite slam-dunked for an entire album’s length.
Semper Femina isn’t without brashness, either. ‘Wild Fire’ has Marling coaching a past lover for reassigning life’s trials to her: “I hear 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.” Even her potty mouth sounds like a breeze under the song’s sizzling waltz and delicate production. The language is simply part of her lexicon, and isn’t used here for anything apart from service to the song. Such is the case with most of the elements on Semper Femina, be it the lyrics, production, or her masterful guitar performances. The words on ‘The Valley’ and ‘Next Time’ are meant to be rapturous, so the guitars follow orders and play off each other in dizzying beauty. “I can no longer close my eyes/ while the world around me dies/ at the hands of folks like me.” sings Marling on ‘Next Time’. If the world is indeed dying, we’ll need voices with character like the one presented here.
It’s an important transition that Marling is going through here at album six. She isn’t battling the world and people around her; instead she’s spending as much time being grateful for the moments she is given, addressed most directly on ‘Wild Once’. No longer decrying an urban and fussy love like on her debut Alas, I Cannot Swim, she’s looking back on the past with a gumption for the future that could have been overlooked after writing as many songs as Marling has.
On ‘Nouel’, the dance between Marling and song turns into that between Marling and Marling. “She sings along to ‘Sailor Song’/ in a dress that she made/ when she’s gone I sing along.” Marling describes, addresses, and even gives a name to the act of creation. Not only do we get a sneak peak of her own songwriting process, we get a snapshot of a musician in the throes of her prime. With Eagle already standing as one of the peaks of modern folk music, we would not necessarily have expected to hear another knockout record from her, but there’s no denying Semper Femina stands toe-to-toe with her opus. Whether addressing herself or her entire gender, the list of sagacious observations goes on: “She’d like to be the kind of free/ woman still can be alone/ how I wish I/ could flip the switch that/ keeps you from being gone.”
The list of comparison artists on Semper Femina is a lengthy one. Marling encapsulates the modernity of Conor Oberst, the tenderness of Leslie Feist, the production chops of Ryan Adams, and so on. On closer ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’, she goes full Jeff Buckley mode. The guitars sway in a casual waltz with an ever-expanding vocal line, eventually culminating in a guitar solo that focuses on one note at a time, thus striking a chord with minimalist rock as well as the other genres in the album’s toolbox. “We’ve not got long anymore/ to bask in the afterglow/ once it’s gone it’s gone/ love waits for no one.” Though it’s unlikely Marling will discontinue her hot streak, she’s still reminding us that we may as well enjoy the sublimity of Semper Femina while we can.
But, comparing these tunes to past rock greats misses the point. Only in hindsight do the mirror images of this record present themselves. While listening, however, the swirl of guitars and melodies is all that matters. You’ll blink your eye, and all of ‘Next Time’ will have gone by. By the third or fourth listen, this trance will include singing along in a singsong, White Album kind of way. And there’s another reason Marling’s current state of affairs will stand the test of time. One can hardly bring it up without having to mention something already widely appreciated and loved. It’s a journey beyond explanation Marling is taking us on.