- by Bill Golembeski Release Date:2017-03-10 Label: More Alarming Records/Kobalt Music Recordings
Laura Marling’s new album, Semper Femina, should be easy to review because it’s so good. But it didn’t turn out that way. You see, it was all so innocent. I’m an aquaphobic. I have a big-time fear of water. Until I was thirteen, I couldn’t take a shower without wearing a life preserver. Well, that may well be a tad hyperbolic, but let’s face it, there’s a lot of that going on America right now. So anyway, how could I resist buying Laura Marling’s first album titled, Alas, I Cannot Swim? This would be simple: an album about not being able to swim, and pretty cool cover to boot. It was just to be another purchase. But with this being a Laura Marling record, it just didn’t turn out that way. It never does. I started singing her song, “The Ghosts.” I couldn’t get it out of my head. By the way, I also have a fear of ghosts, which is called phasmophobia or spectrophobia (pick your poison), but that’s beside the point. And, to be exact, the lyrics to the song were “the ghosts, the ghosts, the ghosts, the ghosts, the ghosts, the ghosts that broke my heart before I met you.” (I’m not certain, but I may have missed one or two “ghosts” in there.) This was a folk album, mostly guitar and voice with a bit of percussion, yet it was filled with melodies, all springing from this fairly young woman’s soul, that were just plain other-worldly. Did I mention that Laura told us all that “It’s not like I believe in everlasting love,” a sign, perhaps, of things to come.
Her fourth album, Once I Was an Eagle, was a continuous song-cycle that didn’t exactly say that “love is a many splendored thing.” This elevated entertainment into the realm of art. The closest comparison might be the style of Roy Harper in his heyday of wondrous albums in the 70’s, climaxing with the song, “When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease,” and the spirit of John Martyn’s Grace and Danger, or Peter Hammill’s Over. And that’s good company to keep. If you are like me, every Sunday night is reserved for creating and revising various “best” albums lists. “Once I Was an Eagle” usually cracks my top ten “sublime records.”
So there is a new album, Semper Femina. Like I said, this should be easy because the record is so great, but, as I also said, it didn’t turn out that way. It’s quite the complex recording. Apparently, the original idea was to write songs from the point of view of men about women. Well, that would have been a bad idea because most men don’t have a clue about themselves much less women, or about anything else for that matter. So the album, then, became songs about a woman’s view, understanding, and love of other women. Now that makes sense in the same way Ray Davies writing about his view, understanding, and love of England makes a whole lot sense.
The first song, “Soothing,” and its video, pretty much reveal the game plan. The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who is mentioned in a recent Laura Marling interview, says, “For centuries now, they (women) have performed the whole of love; they have always played the full dialogue, both parts. For man has only imitated them, and badly.” Well, that about says it. The song itself is a breath of fresh air from the last album, Short Movie, which was a nice record with a more electric weight, but at least for my taste, it sounded a bit too much in spots like a Dire Straits recording. By the way, I also have a Sunday night list for “good albums that sound like Dire Straits.” In case you are interested, Jethro Tull’s Crest of a Knave usually tops that chart. In contrast to all of that, “Soothing” is hauntingly slow, with a jazz-like bass that counters Laura’s voice, which is much more emotive and occupies much more space than on previous albums. This is way beyond a folk singer strumming catchy folk songs. We are told “God is brooding.” An imaginary door closes, and she sings, “You can’t come in.” Yes, it may be pop philosophy, but it is deep water symbolism stuff. And, you know, I still can’t swim. The next song,“The Valley,” is pure English reflective folk song stuff, with two or three notes that hover like a specter of Nick Drake. Perhaps, and it’s just an idea, but all this “Femina” stuff isn’t always so gender-specific.
So the album works on two levels. Obviously, there are the songs. “Wildfire” has a new Americana country soul sound that is not too distant from the very best of Shelby Lynne in her “post-big label take charge of her our career period.” That’s meant as a big compliment. The next song, “Don’t Pass Me By,” brings back a bit of the rather eerie electric guitar sound with more of the heavy emotional vocals and a sombre violin backdrop, all of which continue to haunt this music. And I’m still phasmophobic! “Always This Way” is another love song to everything “Femina” with perhaps, my favorite melody on the record. Once again, the bass is up front with an acoustic guitar that accompanies a weary vocal. It’s really a beautiful song.
But there is a second level on which this record revolves. If this is just a woman singing about the greatness of the other women, well, its appeal is limited. Carl Jung discussed “the undiscovered self.” This “journey” is, of course, part of the human experience. Laura Marling happens to be a woman, just like Ray Davies, while writing about England, just happens to be British. Both are writing about themselves. Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God to discover the beauty of being an African-American woman living in the South. Her book, though, spoke to a universal audience well beyond the specifics of her heroine, Janie Starks. Anyone can, and should, make the Jungian trip into “the undiscovered self,” and in doing so, encourage others to do the same. So, these songs, which are about women, may speak to a greater audience. My friend, Kilda Defnut, says in her Sacred Maxim III of her theology, “We are all the same because we are all different.” I agree. Yes, I can understand “Waterloo Sunset” without ever having been to the London train station “every Friday night.”
Ah, but there are still the wonderful songs. “Wild One” urgently reflects on youth, and the song chases “the stones” of childhood and the need to “remember.” This is simple acoustic music, but it comes with a new-found sophistication. The same is true for “Next Time,” which is about failure, leaving someone behind, ending a relationship, and hoping “Next Time” will be better. “Nouel” is a love song to another woman who happens to be an inspiration. As Wordsworth said, it is “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” It’s an important song, perhaps, because a lot of people aren’t strong enough to do that sort of thing. This may be the cornerstone of the record as it uses the title Semper Femina (ever woman) in its lyric even including the “fickle and changeable” part of Virgil’s original. The album then ends with, “Nothing, Not Nearly” with the universal message “love waits for no one” which is delivered with a nice burst of electric guitar and an acoustic fade out to the end.
This is simply a lovely record, and it is Laura Marling’s most mature recording. All the songs had to be mentioned simply because they are all that good. Ironically, despite the introspection, it actually opens many doors. It does, indeed, speak to us all, even those of us who cannot swim and are still, and will always be, afraid of the very ghosts about whom we continue to sing.