Each record she has released has differed and progressed in its lyrical framework as well as its musicality; over the course of her career she has written about death, night terrors, heartbreak, faith, and the odd diss track thrown in for good measure (“Failure” from her 2008 debut Alas, I Cannot Swim is said to be either about Pete Doherty or her ex, Noah And The Whale frontman, Charlie Fink).
On her latest record, Semper Femina, a fresh idea – perhaps the freshest yet – structures themes which are observed objectively, as either an omnipotent narrator or as a friend of the characters she speaks to, whose lives she explores in this work celebrating femininity.
The album title reflects a line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Varium et mutabile semper femina” (“Fickle and changeable always is woman”). A topical theme, indeed, the concept of femininity is explored throughout with this quote as its through line.
The multifaceted experience of womanhood is explored, and in the light of the subtle nuances of femininity the Virgil quote transforms from insult to praise. Indeed, the song “Nouel” underlines this firmly as Marling sings affectionately to an old friend: “Fickle and changeable and may that never change”.
Musically, compared to previous albums this record is notably far less angsty, less moody, serene yet engaging as ever Marling’s work is. The pensive, observational vibe is further reflected in the tonality; rather than close minor thirds and maungy modulations there is much perfect and open fifth/fourth action going on.
This reflects the open-minded, objective stance Marling takes in her lyrics. In fact, there could be a significant parallel to draw here: maybe the serenity of this record comes from the absence of males; the sense of sisterhood, a naturally collaborative and soul-enriching thing for its members, may be what grants this record its still, classy calm.
Production feels somewhat lifted compared with Marling’s previous, more brooding works – the arrangements seem sparser and feel less heavy on the ears and heartstrings. There are moments of hinted-at darkness or flat-out creepiness however; the surprising, clacky stop-starting of “Soothing” features creepy chromatics sloping around beneath lyrics about, “Some creepy conjurer/Who touched the rim/Whose hands are in the door”.
The sinister undertones turn musical: “May those who find you find remorse/A change of course/A strange discord resolved”. Music as a metaphor for relationships is seen again on the track “Don’t Pass Me By”, whereby she urges her friend to, “Take my old tune/Turn it into something new/Something good”.
A musing on vanity on “The Valley” resonates with the Instagram culture we live in, now: “We love beauty ’cause it needs us to/It needs our brittle glaze, and innocence reminds us to/Cover our drooling gaze”.
Meanwhile, “Wildfire” speaks admiringly of a woman who keeps a pen behind her ear and wants to be a writer, yet for Marling: “Of course the only part that I want to read/Is about her time spent with me”. She philosophizes on the impossibility of escaping our own first-person perspectives: “Wouldn’t you die to know how you’re seen/Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?”
Women craft self-image in response to many things – external pressure to belong, internal pressure to rise against. Marling takes this idea further, drily: “You always say you love me most/When I don’t know I’m being seen/Well, maybe someday when God takes me away/I’ll understand what the f*ck that means”.
In these times of hyper-feminism, the topicality of the subject cannot be avoided. However, I doubt this is a wry move on the money team of Marling’s part as to cash in on a current concept – that just isn’t Marling’s style (although I may have a naive bias as I have loved her for years).
Rather than being a strongly political feminist work, this is a honest and all-encompassing series of vignettes observing female life. Marling tackles a topical subject from an angle other than the soapbox. Rather than being feminist, this is simply female. And it’s marvellous. Semper Femina is available now for £7.99 on iTunes. Buy it here.
Words by Hannah Bruce