Brilliant Lyricism and Stunning Performance
Laura Marling has a lot to say, and she says it with a silver tongue. The English singer-songwriter is full of thoughts, real thoughts, the kind that blow past the bull of people’s behaviors, actions and words and cut straight to the heart of what matters. On her newest LP, Semper Femina, Marling displays a strong command of lyrical phrasing and gentle yet evocative melodies, while displaying a strength of emotional character not to be missed by fans of hers or fans of songwriting in general.
Produced by Blake Mills and recorded at NRG Studios, Berkley Sound Studios Santa Monica and Randall Court Studios, Marling’s sixth LP is a stunning, strong display of the best meditations of a stunning, strong musician. Her voice is soaring and free; she moves up and down a scale with ease. This is displayed quite well on the opener “Soothing” and is otherworldly and strange, a song that creeps up on you with heavy, low strings and vibrant vocals. It’s unique, visceral and utterly original. Marling has a way of singing many, many words and complex phrases in her verses; there is much to listen to and parse apart from this point onward.
Track two, “The Valley,” feels more traditional with a spine of acoustic guitar, interesting chord progressions and light, effervescent harmonies — as well as some fantastic string solos. It’s also a fine introduction to the type of songs that will be heard on the rest of the record: full of heartfelt feelings and observations.
“Wild Fire” has a country melody and jazzy vocal line, showing how easily Marling’s style can traipse across genre boundaries. The combination is elegant and classy; it’s entirely listenable and easy to digest the many words from Marling and thoughts about perceptions, people and desires. The track also shows off the subtle prowess of her band, who hang back and let Marling do the talking. Marling and her guitar are joined by Matt Ingram on drums, Nick Pini on bass, Pete Randall and Mills on guitar, Rob Moore on strings and arrangements, Matt Chamberlain on additional drums and Sebastian Steinberg on additional bass.
One of the most standout and memorable tracks, “Always This Way,” features poignant contemplation about living with choices made in the years gone by and the world as it revolves. “I would like to say that I could’ve stayed / but she didn’t want me to,” the song begins. Light acoustic picking and soft, pattering rhythms paint a bright and light landscape for thoughts that otherwise might seem depressing. But against this backdrop, it is clear to see Marling is thinking aloud about her life in a questioning, curious way. She’s even reflective about the way her time is spent: “Lately I wonder if all my pondering / is taking up too much ground.” It’s a strong track all around and a prime example of how powerful Marling’s storytelling can be.
The latter half of the album is populated with slower, stripped down tracks, including “Wild Once,” which is a look back with a little regret and plenty of detail on the actions and behaviors of children who seem to be able to tap into a sense of humanity that we lose as we get old. “I was wild once/ and I can’t forget it,” Marling croons in a nearly spoken voice. It’s a brilliant, honest sentiment wrapped up in a simple setting.
“Nouel” is a ballad of sorts, an acoustic track with Marling describing a woman in detail, from her physicality and mannerisms, apparently fighting against the end of a relationship or the pull of death. “How I wish that I could / flip the switch that / keeps you from getting gone,” she sings, before revealing the lyrical inspiration for the album title.
As a phrase and as a title, “Semper Femina” indicates the female-focus of Marling’s album, which comes through strong throughout. While some feminist musicians might mull over the power of women compared to men, or release rallying cries for the feminine half of the population, Marling is far more inward, exploring the vulnerabilities and complexities that happen in life’s moments, large and small.
“Nothing Not Really” is a beautiful closer full of meaningful lines about love and lessons. “Once it’s gone it’s gone / love waits for no one,” Marling sings. It is yet another line on an album full of them that connects on a Socratic level, probing and prying at the reasons, ways and context of feelings instead of just divulging them.
Writers are so often trying to get to the heart of what matters, so often trying to make that connection with those on the other side of the creative work. Marling offers a textbook on how to let your words flow free without laying it on too thick, how to set one’s own observations into a larger context of a life lived through all of its emotional facets. It is a must-listen for those who seek authentic expression in their music, as well as for those who seek the treat of a gorgeous performance to boot.