Listening to Laura Marling’s intimate new release Semper Femina is like falling into a dream. Not the surrealist kind with weird imagery, but the half-awake type where one is aware of the day-dreaming and doesn’t want to break the spell. Marling discusses the meaning of life, the significance of beauty, the value of friendship, and the importance of love. Her songs are reflective, yet exuberant; warm, yet studious. She keeps things serious by not being ponderous. She doesn’t brood. Marling finds something funny in sober introspection. Life may not be a joke, but watch out for that banana peel!
Marling is both the protagonist and observer of her own material. She sings about herself in the third and first person, switching back and forth because she understands we all are more than one personality. The double-tracking of Marling’s vocals on “The Valley”, for example, allows her to question herself through her changing inflections simultaneously on the same lines. Blake Mills’ multi-layered production deserves high praise for capturing the nuances of Marling’s voices and putting her words in a liberating musical context where imagination rules. Are those wind chimes blowing underneath the finger-picked guitar and are those violins; when did the strings come in, where did they go, and what is that noise? Close listening yields more questions than answers.
The same is the case for Marling’s witty and enigmatic lyrics. She spouts truths like a tea kettle, but she’s not sure which ones are true. The 27-year-old Brit understands this may be due to her relative youth. “It’s too soon to say / Was I always this way?” she sings, but Marling also knows she’s no longer a child. She remembers being wild and innocent, something she can’t quite explain nor forget. That’s why her search for what it all means matters. One cannot continually ask “why” without attempting to answer the question. Time passes by. What was once now seems like a long time ago. Life happens whether one is ready or not. Marling wants to live a good life, and she wants to do better if she can just figure it out.
These existential questions lie at the heart of Semper Femina, but what makes it so damn good is Marling’s ability to let her feelings guide her mind rather than the other way around. Or as she croons pensively, “We love beauty ’cause it needs us to / It needs our brittle glaze / And innocence reminds us to / Cover our drooling gaze.” This is art, not philosophy where the truth of beauty makes one slobber, not just salivate. Desire is too intense for good manners. She sings this in a pure voice that belies her fleshy mortality. The self-contained contradiction serves as evidence. She’s no angel but expresses herself angelically.
Other songs such as “Soothing” have Marling wrap her voice around her lyrics like a snake climbing the air to a charmer’s tune. She croons and beckons, “I banish you with love / You can’t come in / You don’t live here anymore.” Marling has it both ways to those who hear between the lines. All of the nine tracks fall back on these same self-reflexive paradoxes of wanting and not wanting / understanding and not understanding / believing and not believing, et al. on an ever-changing continuum.
The album’s title comes from Roman poet Virgil’s line from The Aeneid, “varium et mutabile semper fœmina (woman is ever fickle and changeable)”. Marling cites this line in the lovely and lilting “Nouel” about a woman as a siren that both entices men and wants to remain alone. Being fickle and changeable weighs one down, but alas that is one’s fate. Being free and belonging, the push and pull of life; one can never stay satisfied.
Marling purposely captures the female perspective on this album, but of course, her insights hold true for all human beings. We may be separated by sex, but that is just one of many things that keep us from fully knowing each other and even understanding ourselves. Marling wanders and wonders what it’s all about. Her journey enriches us all.