Note: This piece is the music Essential in Paste Quarterly #1, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl Paste sampler.
In December of 2016, Laura Marling made her first foray into the theater world, writing the score for Robert Icke’s new production of Mary Stuart, Friedrich Schiller’s early 19th century play about the fractious and politically charged relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. A few days before the show’s London premiere, Marling spoke with Newsweek and reflected on the “innocent creativity” that had marked her career to that point. “I look at that sort of carefree creativity, and I think, ‘What use is it? It’s not rooted, not pointed, not political,’” she said. Self-indulgent art in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world now seemed like a luxury, and she hoped her future work would serve a practical purpose, addressing ideas of power and challenging female archetypes. With Semper Femina, she does just that.
Still only 27, Marling has maintained the early pace of her favorite singer-songwriters—Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell—producing a new album every two years while becoming a more ambitious writer and arranger with every release. Following 2015’s Short Movie, a transitional album where Marling switched to electric guitar and sharpened her observational skills, she paired up with producer Blake Mills (Jim James, Alabama Shakes, John Legend) in Los Angeles with the intent of crafting a lusher, more varied set of songs. The pairing works, adding soulful bounce to her occasionally brittle hooks and orchestral heft to her simpler arrangements. In both design and execution, Semper Femina is a different kind of statement.
Taking its title from a line in a Virgil poem about how women are “ever fickle and changeable,” Marling’s sixth full-length release represents a new type of writing about women. Political without being polemical, she filters her narrative sketches through a personal lens that neither over-idealizes nor under-romanticizes her subjects. These songs do not borrow from the “I Am Woman” school of sloganeering, nor do they siphon off any Riot Grrl fury or Lilith Fair universalism. Instead they are subtle and intimate, subversive in the way they delicately defy the tendency of artists, even female ones, to present women as one-dimensional muses, tragic figures and objects of affection—plot devices in someone else’s story. Instead, the characters in Marling’s songs feel like real people: often restless, frequently viewed from afar and almost uniformly mysterious in their motivations. Few songwriters have written about women quite like this.
Sounding a bit like Chan Marshall channeling Bonnie Raitt on “Wild Fire,” she soulfully intones over a soft backdrop of acoustic guitar and electric piano about a strained relationship, wondering if anyone can ever know how they’re perceived by others. “Would you die to know how you’re seen?” she asks. “Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?”
Song after song, Marling positions herself as a participant observer of sorts, examining the extent to which she and the women in her songs are straining to accept themselves, and perhaps each other, as they truly are. That idea turns up again on “Wild Once,” a gentle piano and acoustic guitar ballad that speeds up and slows down around Marling’s softly sung-spoken lines about remembering and reclaiming lost wanderlust.
That feeling of adventure is there from the start. Opener “Soothing” seems conjured out of the winter air, building on creeping bass lines and stuttering beats before becoming tangled in swirling strings and a haunting chorus that lands somewhere between Radiohead and Portishead. Similarly exploratory is “Don’t Pass Me By,” its blurry beats and deliriously smeared electric guitar lines creating a perfect contrast for the pristinely plucked violins that punctuate her expressions of insecurity and restiveness. It’s a sentiment that runs throughout the course of the album.
Marling is often a character in these songs, though rarely the only one. When she is, she’s writing from a place of doubt. “Twenty-five years, nothing to show for it, nothing of any weight,” she sings on “Always This Way,” a reverb-soaked lament where she sifts through the ruins of another relationship. “Fickle and changeable”—those words turn up again in the chorus on “Nouel,” a lovely fingerpicked ballad that sounds like it could have been discovered buried in the basement of a church in southern England. Here, Nouel is a personification of femininity itself, a creative, adventurous, slightly faded woman longing to exist outside of other people’s perceptions. “I do well to serve Nouel, whatever service I may be,” she sings over gorgeously ringing guitar lines, “fickle and changeable, weighing down on me.”
That weight might be difficult to fully appreciate, given just how timelessly beautiful and uplifting the song—as well as the album, as a whole—sounds. Despite all of her growth over the past decade, Marling remains at heart a folksinger who uses the foundational elements of songcraft to express abiding truths. And like a great folksinger, she has created an album of songs whose sounds and sentiments are much weightier than they appear on the surface, providing entry to somewhere much more wondrous and strange and troubling than it first appears. Semper Femina is a ticket for such a journey, one that provides practical insights but no easy answers. By the end of the album, one better understands the feeling of having carried, if only briefly, that weight with her.
Check out a live performance by Laura Marling, filmed recently for Paste Studios.