Laura Marling's Semper Femina: Bold, profoundly riveting ode to women from Queen of Nu folk
Laura Marling's sixth studio album is in her own words, “an exploration of womanhood.” It has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Folk Album category.
Editor's note: In the run up to the 60th Annual Grammy Awards on 28 January 2018, Firstpost will be taking a closer look at all the major albums and artists from among the nominees.
It's incredible that Laura Marling has already released six albums in a rather understated but exceptional career. After all, she was 17 when she recorded her debut album, Alas I Cannot Swim, in 2008. Her melismatic vocals and hypnotic fingerpicking not only turned her into the poster child for England’s Nu folk scene but also drew comparisons to folk legends like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. Her previous two albums, Once I Was an Eagle (2013) and Short Movie (2015), proved her versatility — be it with the stripped-down acoustic arrangements on the former or the influx of electronic sounds on the latter — and brought her further critical acclaim and considerable recognition.
On her latest album Semper Femina, Marling's subtle acoustic arrangements have a touch of her own unique brand of baroque pop in them as we see her move away from the electronic leanings of her previous record. It is a remarkable compilation of lush ballads delivered straight from the darkest alcoves of her consciousness. By challenging the male perspective, the British folk musician uses the album to question how society views gender, sexuality and femininity. It is an empowering meditation on what it means to be a 'woman.'
“I started out writing Semper Femina as if a man was writing about a woman," she told The Fader. "And then I thought it’s not a man, it’s me — I don’t need to pretend it’s a man to justify the intimacy of the way I’m looking and feeling about women. It’s me looking specifically at women and feeling great empathy towards them and by proxy towards myself.”
Marling drew the title from a line from Virgil's Aeneid — “Varium et mutabile semper femina”, which roughly translates to “woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing". She, of course, recontextualises it with her brooding, evocative lyrics — rich in fluid metaphors and some potent allegories. A fervent admirer of Rainer Maria Rilke, she writes her lyrics in Semper Femina with similar poetic precision. They can seem enigmatic and relatable at the same time.
The album's opening track, 'Soothing' is a beguiling track with gorgeous double-bass and limited percussion — perfectly complemented by Marling's coy vocals. She playfully sings about her indecisiveness as she calls for and then rebuffs an unwelcome caller before "banishing her with love". Marling's lament on a fractured relationship in 'The Valley' is set against some exquisite fingerpicking and a swelling string section. Her conversational tone and lyrical musings in 'Wild Fire' as she sings, "I think your mama's kinda sad and your papa's kinda mean/ I can take that all away and you can stop playing it all out on me," reminds one of Bob Dylan's folk stylings. "Can you love me if I put up a fight?" Marling asks bitterly on 'Don’t Pass Me By,' as the lead guitar line beautifully contrasts against the alluring sounds of the violin.
The mournful sounds of cello swell as she regrets the loss of her friend in the bass-led 'Always This Way', singing, “Now she’s gone and I’m all alone/ And she will not be replaced.” 'Wild Once' is a nostalgic folk ballad where Marling reflects on her own youth (“I was wild once, and I can’t forget it/ I was wild, chasing stones”) while empathising with the young ("It's hard if you can't change it/ It's worse if you don't try/ You will sit down to explain it/ And you're constantly asking why"). Marling sings against swooping strings the urgency and need to protect our Mother Earth in ‘Next Time’ accounting even her own culpability, "I can no longer close my eyes/ While the world around me dies/ At the hands of folks like me").
The album's themes about womanhood are most obvious in the enchanting ballad 'Nouel,' which echoes vintage Joni Mitchell. “Fickle and changeable, semper femina” sings Marling, tweaking the Virgil phrase to perfectly capture the emotional complexities of women. The closing 'Nothing, Not Nearly' has a sense of finality about it as Marling expresses her own voyage of self-discovery while composing Semper Femina but not without warning, "Nothing matters more than love, no nothing, no, not nothing no, not nearly. We've not got long, you know, to bask in the afterglow. Once it's gone, it's gone. Love waits for no one."
The new developments in both sound and style in each of her albums show that Marling is a musician who'll continue to experiment throughout her career but without losing the simplicity and brevity of folk music. The profound sensitivity of her vocal performances and the confident instrumentation on each track in Semper Femina is proof that Laura Marling is an artist at the height of her creative powers.
Semper Femina earned Laura Marling her first Grammy Award nomination. It has been nominated in the Best Folk Album category.
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