Semper Femina, the sixth album from British folk singer Laura Marling, is a beautiful, soothing meditation on women and the relationships of and between women. The title comes from a line by the poet Virgil: “varium et mutabile semper femina,” roughly translating to “woman is a fickle and ever-changing thing.” While Virgil meant that as an insult, Marling interprets that more as a statement of fact: women have the potential for change.
The album just feels effortless. So many of these songs are so simple: a verse will be Marling’s vocals over a simple, repeating guitar line, and yet it sounds effortless and polished. Songs such as “Wild Once” consist mostly of these simple elements and yet somehow sound amazingly complex. Marling’s vocals aren’t necessarily quiet, but they give off an air of calmness that permeates the album. She sings in a soft, soothing tone that doesn’t neglect vocal strength and melodic craft. Her melodies simple but not flimsy, gentle yet still intoxicating. These are songs that one could definitely fall asleep to, but also songs that can be delved into, nitpicked to death in a music critic setting.
This entire album serves a testament to how amazing Marling’s skills as a songwriter are. Semper Femina shows how Marling’s mastered the folk genre. Semper Femina strays away from folk music cliches: there’s not a banjo on the album, nor any wide-reaching overambitious songs about change, nor can it really be traced to any definite subgenre of folk. The album also feels gentle. With one exception, the slightly out of place final track “Nothing Not Really,” Marling’s created an album that’s simultaneously soothing, calm, and slightly sad. Occasionally she delves into a spoken word type of singing, more conversational than singing. This works to her benefit, giving the lines it features on an extra emphasis and demanding the audience’s attention.
One of the highlights of the album is “The Valley,” a gentle love song to a female lover. Marling layers her voice in gorgeous harmonies, building a simple vocal line into something borderline ethereal. The song is one of building. It starts off with a simple guitar line and the vocals, crescendoing into a wide, luxurious, beautiful explosion of sound. Lyrics like “I’d love you in the evening / if only she would stay” are simply sung over these gorgeous violins, perfectly layered on top of each other in this absolutely beautiful explosion of strings.
“Nouel” ties directly into the idea of ‘semper femina’, quoting the album title and it’s translation as Marling sings about Nouel, a woman who she desperately loves and who Marling knows is going to leave her. This is perhaps the most simple song on the album: the verses are the same tune, repeated over and over again, the backing is just a guitar playing a repeated few riffs. The intimacy created by the staging makes Marling’s lyrics only hit harder and seem all the more beautiful: “I’d do well / to serve Nouel / my only guiding star.” The ending rhyme of ‘Nouel’ and ‘well/hell’ continue the album’s trend of seeming deceptively simple. They are easy rhymes, but they effortlessly ground the chorus. The words of the verses and the relationship with Nouel is radically different with each verse, but eventually, we’ll come back to that simple, perfectly used rhyme. “Nouel” is simultaneously a lullaby, an elegy, and a tribute to Nouel and all her complexities.
Simply put, Semper Femina is an amazing album. It’s gentleness and softness cannot hide the fact that Marling is a master songwriter, making songs that walk a fine line between the simple and the complex, while still never losing that pure tone that permeates the album.