Six years ago, aged 21, Laura Marling had the smarty-pants Latin title of this album tattooed on her leg. By itself, “semper femina” means “always woman”, yet in its original context (ancient Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid) it’s part of a warning that translates as “woman is always fickle and changeable”. Marling found the line funny – its author Virgil was, of course, a man – and in album six she subverts his perspective with a level of nuance that would probably have blown his mind.
This album deals in women’s perspectives of women – from close bonds (‘Nouel’, ‘Nothing Not Nearly’) to estranged ones (‘The Valley’, ‘Don’t Pass Me By’). Like virtually all of her writing to date, ‘Semper Femina’ has an intensely personal feel, but her elliptical lyrics continue to blur the line between Marling the person and Marling the persona. Does the ‘Soothing’ lyric “hopeless wanderer” refer to the song by her now-married ex, Marcus Mumford? Are this album’s dying friendships real or fictional?
It doesn’t really matter: what’s always shone brightest in Marling’s music is her Leonard Cohen-like acuity, and that shows no sign of abating here. In ‘The Valley’ – by some distance her most elegant work to date – she sighs: “I know she stayed in town last night / Didn’t get in touch / I know she has my number right / She can’t face seeing us”. Her Dylanesque speak-singing is back too, but it’s saved for just a few couplets in ‘Wild Once’, and here it radiates poise. As always, Marling’s maturity is a little bit scary.
Some things have changed, though. Marling has a new producer in Blake Mills (Conor Oberst, Sky Ferreira) and together they create a motley set of textures. ‘Always This Way’ delivers its rueful tale with a muted acoustic thrum; ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ ripples with glum reverberation; ‘Next Time’ hints at inner conflict with some somersaulting fretwork straight out of a bizarro Joanna Newsom composition. It all adds up to the most serene, stylistically varied album Marling has ever created – and that’s surely the point. “Fickle and changeable are you,” she smiles to a dear girlfriend on ‘Nouel’, “and long may that continue”. Hear that, Virgil?