Throughout her past albums, Laura Marling steeped her rich lyrical poetry in thick swaths of familiarity and compartmentalized emotional observations. With the increasing expanse of her oeuvre, she continues to weave dense works filled with layers that warrant unfolding over the course of multiple listens. It should come with little shock or surprise that Semper Femina, Marling’s sixth album in nine years and follow-up to 2015’s Short Movie, carries this same torch through yet another iteration of her ascent into adulthood. For an artist whose first release came at the age of 18, Marling has continuously proved her innate ability to craft lyrics that shadow her own personal experiences in a manner that belies her still young age. She sings softly about feelings that scream loudly, pointing to interpersonal issues and thoughts that too often go unannounced.
The pounding, deep bass and airy, otherworldly chimes on leadoff track “Soothing” is Laura Marling at her most artistically hungry, providing a sound that’s entirely new territory. It’s maintained throughout with a gentle booming just underneath the track never quite breaking surface tension but threatening it. Like much of Marling’s work, “Soothing” appears autobiographical while still maintaining an air of separation. The narrator uses first-person language, “I banish you with love” and “I need soothing”, all the while feeling as if she has inhabited the experiences of someone else, potentially the experiences of the listener. This continual shift between inward and outward storytelling pervades throughout Semper Femina. On another one of the album’s fistful of singles, “Wildfire,” there are lines that point to an unnamed “she” but the song lives in the narration with Marling even making a point of soulfully repeating the refrain “me” that caps off the chorus.
Laura Marling asks for a significant amount of involvement from her listeners. While it’s deeply rhetorical and will never require a verbal acknowledgement, completing a playthrough of Semper Femina without having actively participated in some form of introspection is a missed opportunity and wasted time. The artist has laid herself bare, spoken of intimate desires or thoughts, the loss of relationships and while appearing as a cleansing ritual for herself, it’s more. It’s an invitation to join her—to learn from her experiences. “So at the end of the day, at least I can say, that my debts have been paid,” Marling shares on “Always This Way,” providing one another opportunity to pause and reflect on whether they’ve balanced themselves similarly.
The term “Semper Femina” comes from the Latin phrase “varium et mutabile semper femina,” a sexist statement by today’s standards written by the poet Virgil (which Marling has tattooed on her person), which translates to “woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing.” The spirit of that phrase, along with the actual words, comprise the chorus of “Nouel” a track that attempts to break down and analyze what it means to be both fickle and changeable. Chords dance up and down, wrapping around appreciative proclamations about Marling’s version Nouel, “but you’ll be anything you choose, fickle and changeable are you, and long may that continue, I do well to serve Nouel, my only guiding star.” It’s the point on Semper Femina that most effectively casts Marling as storyteller, a role that fits her world-weary perspective better than many of her contemporaries.
The pinnacle of Marling’s newest masterpiece is its finale, “Nothing Not Nearly.” It’s as rambunctious as she gets while maintaining the soulful contemplation she’s best known for. Plucking her guitar with a patient fervor and intoning, “We’ve not got long, you know, to bask in the afterglow, once it’s gone it’s gone, love waits for no one,” it concludes with Marling taking her own advice and breaking the fourth wall. She walks out of the recording studio, we hear her footsteps, a door open and shut as she potentially searches for her own love. Birds sing the remainder and we’re left to bask in the serenity of Laura Marling’s own afterglow.