Sony Music Canada Inc.
Laura Marling’s output is extraordinary – 27 years old, six albums to date, all of them great. Each one building on the one before it. No mistakes. No duds. And though the first three sit in a straight line (and that’s not a criticism) from there her sound has shifted with each release, solo outings, the shift to electric guitar, new textures. Here she has made her very best album (so far). And it was probably the first album I really fell in love with this year – I’ve forgotten to write about it until now, I guess in part at least because I spoke about it on the radio. (That sometimes means I forget to write a piece – in some sense I’ve already reviewed it and I don’t want to double-up…)
Anyway, Semper Femina is gorgeous. Everything about it – the voice of course, as always, but the subtle, intricate framings, the work of master producer/multi-instrumentalist Blake Mills (a perfect fit for Marling, sharing a wise-beyond-the-years musical philosophy and technical wizardry) lift these songs, place them where they deserve to be.
I thought, straight away, and still think of Suzanne Vega’s Nine Objects of Desire; specifically the way that album spoke to me – the way those songs sizzled and danced on their own but still lined up to be counted as part of a whole. It’s not that Marling sounds like Vega – though there would of course be no shame in that – I’m just thinking of the emotional feeling these songs conjure. Right away here, Soothing, a siren song for the ages, had me thinking of Vega’s Nine Objects songs Caramel and World Before Columbus. I imagined some magical conflation of those two songs – you could almost imagine Marling’s Soothing as that outcome. The conjuring of moods and the majesty and craft in and of the writing.
From there the Marling of old is represented on the deftly fingerpicked guitar and vocal-coo of The Valley. The stoicism of Wild Fire and the sheer gorgeousness of Always This Way (a nearly perfect composition, a sweetly framed performance) will hint back to Once I Was An Eagle and A Creature I Don’t Know but with the left-turn aspects of Short Movie further informing this (new) sound.
There are quiet, thoughtful meditations (Don’t Pass Me By) and the familiar folkie throwbacks (Nouel) and throughout the album – its title a reference to the strength and fickle sensibilities in and of women – the lyrical themes speak to the powerful intra-relationships of women. Most often (as on Next Time) it’s a whisper in the ear to women (a whisper through the air…)
In a year that has seen something of a shift – some recognition at least, nowhere near enough of course – of the importance of women’s stories, the strength, the thought, the need to address blatant inequalities too, Semper Femina felt straight away like part of that mission statement. But let’s not politicise the album’s ambitions – for it exists simply as gorgeous music outside all of that. Maybe it speaks to Marling’s true strengths that she’s able to make music that is deceptively sly in this way: it proudly holds its head high, exists almost purely due to and because of the magic in music, the aim to create something lovely and lasting. And yet all around it there’s some extra authority, something more than pageantry. Something truly deep.
She’s made her masterpiece here. That is – of course – until she writes and records her next one…