It seems impossible that Laura Marling could already be on her sixth album. More striking, perhaps, is the sonic development over the nine years since the relative simplicity of 2008’s ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’. That said, there is more than a touch of the composed, intense brevity of ‘I Speak Because I Can’ about ‘Semper Femina’, a record that considers female identity and relationships between women. ‘Wild Fire’, which reflects on how Marling appears in a friend’s diary, is a beautifully executed piece of Laurel Canyon soul, while ‘The Valley’ attempts to understand another woman’s palpable sense of loss assisted by a captivatingly measured string arrangement.
Lead track ‘Soothing’ is a striking way to commence proceedings, the rhythm section’s simmering malevolence reinforcing the message “I banish you with love” as intimacy ends and the subject is told “you don’t live here anymore.” ‘Next Time’ reflects on regret, initially in delicately acoustic surroundings before a manic, fuzzy string break suggests that it might not be so easy to put the ghosts to bed. Having not enjoyed the act of self-producing 2015’s ‘Short Movie’, Marling recruited fellow guitarist Blake Mills to take control. His fondness for pushing familiar sounds beyond their natural confines has a subtle but defining impact upon these nine songs. ‘Semper Femina’ concludes with the melodic crunch of ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’, a hasty spoken-sung vocal almost pulling the band with it towards a swooning chorus before an abrupt end announced with footsteps, a closed door and birdsong.
Initial copies of the impressive vinyl release included a bonus disc featuring a live take on the whole album recorded in Chicago, which has since reappeared as the ‘Deluxe Edition’. It’s well worth seeking out still, as the set captures the loose, spiky magic that is often present in Marling’s early performances of new material and is more than just a means of peddling this unsurprisingly wonderful record. It’s no surprise for Marling to feature in one of my end of year lists and I’m conscious of the fact that she seems to be slightly lower down the list each time. I’m not sure if there’s a risk that I’m simply taking her brilliance for granted after such a consistent run of albums here, as this is right up there with the rest. Whatever the number next to it, ‘Semper Femina‘ is a captivating delight.