Semper Femina (Kobalt)
Before exploring this sensual, subtle and continually fascinating album – already set to be one of the quiet milestones of 2017 – there’ll be the question: Semper Femina?
Well, how’s your Latin? Or, if you can think laterally a bit, your knowledge of American fighting units, specifically the Marines?
It doesn’t take a Classics scholar guess that Laura Marling’s new album concerns itself with the feminine. But it’s not quite as you might expect.
The album’s title sounds a bit like the US Marines’ motto Semper Fidelis (shortened to Semper Fi as anyone who has watched a Sunday afternoon war movie could tell you) which translates as always faithful.
So, Semper Femina, always woman? Well yes, but with a sting, for the words come from a longer, famous and more questionable phrase, varium et mutablile semper femina – to wit, woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing.
Which is of course a phrase from a man’s gaze, defining by absence of understanding or imposition of belief. Basically, it’s the punchline of many a smoky men’s club comedian to a bunch of blokes: women, eh? I know, right. Who can tell?
That kind of thinking’s not going to fly any more. Semper Femina, does not seek nor reflect the male gaze or the male assumption; in fact, it does not include men at all.
It is an album for, to and about women. Not “great” women, or neglected women, elevating one above the other “lesser”, masculine, form. Nor does it argue for women not being changeable or fickle or bad or reckless – you know, human.
It’s not arguing anything more than here are lives being lived and being seen, by a woman who admires and respects, who herself has questions: “You are wild and I won’t forget it/You are wild, chasing stones.”
So Semper Femina addresses friendship and love and connection but also the fracturing of friendship and love. “Can you love me if I put up a fight?” she asks at one point.
It ponders desire and need, without locking into the monosexual, and anger without succumbing to rancour. “I need soothing/My lips aren’t moving/My god is brooding/I banish you with love.”
The woman being observed, intriguing and sometimes exasperating Marling, in Wild Fire, has aspirations: “She keeps a pen behind her ear’/In case she’s got something she really, really needs to say.”
There’s a book coming, probably, but Marling confesses that “the only part that I want to read is about her time spent with me”. After all, “wouldn't you die to know how you're seen? Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?”
The characters here love and play, fight and regret, just as much as they explore and perplex. For example, in In The Valley a friendship seems tenuous at best, maybe already lost – “I know she stayed in town last night/Didn’t get in touch” - and the reasons why are undetermined. Worse though, they can’t be sought.
“She sings in the valley in the morning/Many a morning I have woke/Longing to ask her what she’s mourning/Of course, I know it can’t be spoke,” Marling sings, leaving open the chance for a reconciliation. “I love you in the evening/And I will do my very best.”
But then Marling, who moved from the UK to LA and then spent a year essentially on the road, alone, is constantly on the move: “If I’m walking, well I don’t know why”. Her emotional restlessness is as much a factor as her physical one in all her relationships.
If it’s true that the one lesson understood from these peripatetic times is simple and obvious, it’s not always grasped by any of us. “The only thing I learnt in a year where I didn't smile once, not really/Is nothing matters more than love/Not nothing, no not nothing/Not nearly.”
To tell these stories, Marling continues her other travels, on the borderlines of music, finding routes through folk, pop and something like adult soul while twisting the straightforward.
There’s nothing in the world at the moment quite as sensuous as the slow breathing bass of Wild Fire, with its little exploratory guitar lines and the loose echo on the drums.
Well, nothing except maybe the slinking, viscous shape of Soothing that entwines with you like a leg thrown over your exhausted, sweat-tipped body as Marling’s voice stands on the line between tense and trembling.
That pair alone posits Semper Femina in the realm of the senses, but in truth you’re placed there regularly, often via Marling’s low, savouring-each-syllable singing.
Take particular note of Don’t Pass Me By that feels most like Portishead (brooding, electric, physical), but also the deliberately more mannered – more English? – but also more lived-in/felt presentation of Nouel.
By contrast, the spectral background atmosphere of The Valley, which reinforces the almost deadpan vocals, suggests emotional separation. But as it opens up to accordion and then strings the effect is closer to the heightened elements of Linda Perhacs’ psych folk.
Alongside the lightly trotting rhythm of Always This Way (which competes with anything by Norah Jones for outright pretty) the initially equally mellow Wild Once feels like a companion piece.
However, Marling’s delivery keeps changing shape, continually resetting expectations. There’s a second story being told underneath and it is just as engaging.
Next Time and Nouel draw from her longstanding interest in the intimate, gently deployed manner of Nick Drake: acoustic bass; sometimes strings ala Robert Kirby, sometimes folk-picked guitar; her voice almost set right inside your head, and so warm it could reheat Scott Morrison’s heart.
But then the album ends with the assertive electric guitar overlays on top of a slow shuffle of Nothing, Not Nearly and you’re reminded that there’s a place for Texas alongside both southern England and southern California in her travels.
It’s worth noting at this point that if you were to take out the pronouns, or the assumption of any particular pronoun, in these songs Semper Femina would have as much impact with its sensuality, exploration, and engagement with the idea of friendship and need in different forms of relationships.
This may be an album made without reference to men but it speaks to them just as well as anyone else who listens.