Musings on identity and independence in Laura Marling's Semper Femina

In his epic poem the Aeneid, ancient Roman poet Virgil opines one of the world's most entrenched gender stereotypes from the point of view of the god Mercury: "Varium et mutabile semper femina", which translates to "fickle and changeable always is woman".

English singer-songwriter Laura Marling appropriates the last words of the clause, "always woman", for her perspicacious study of womanhood in this day and age where sexism remains rampant, from the workplace to a recent presidential election.

On Semper Femina, her sixth release and already considered one of the best albums of the year, the 27-year-old says: "It's me looking specifically at women and feeling great empathy towards them and by proxy towards myself."

Last year, American indie-rock singer Angel Olsen also addresses "the complicated mess of being a woman" in her acclaimed album My Woman, but Marling's latest treatise dives deep and traverses wider, covering history, mythology, visual arts, psychoanalysis and literature in an effortless sweep.



    Laura Marling

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Semper Femina can be viewed as the addendum to her last two projects: her 2015 album Short Movie, which explored feelings of dislocation and isolation while staying in Los Angeles; and her 2016 weekly podcast series titled Reversal Of The Muse, where she interviewed women guests such as Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Marika Hackman on creativity and how they survived in a male-dominated field.

Accompanied by a largely male band fronted by excellent producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes, Fiona Apple), she comes alive in an intriguingly nimble soundscape that is untethered to the whims of fashion, easily at home in the folksy LA commune of Laurel Canyon or the crammed indie bars of London.

"Lately I'm wondering if all my pondering is taking up too much ground," she acknowledges her own voracious thought processes in Always This Way. It is an unexpected and funny touch as buttery riffs shore up her musings on identity and independence.

"You are constantly asking why," she sings and sometimes speaks in Wild Once, perhaps a testament to her younger self, mellifluous guitars braiding over dolorous piano.

Achingly swooning strings also illume The Valley, a strange, intoxicating tale of a gorgeous woman who is mourning, but over what, it is not clear.

"We love beauty 'cause it needs us to/It needs our brittle gaze/And innocence reminds us to/Cover our drooling gaze," Marling nails the ageless allure of physical beauty, a siren of joy, seduction and danger.

An air of Tex-Mex suspense pervades her drawl in Don't Pass Me By, a bluesy dirge that lashes an ex-paramour who has taken her guitar and sold it for parts. "Can you love me if I put up a fight?" she taunts as the percussion thumps till the end of time.

The single Soothing exemplifies her perfect blending of soft and hard, acoustic and electric, as two basses curl around each other like wary serpentines.

"Oh, some creepy conjuror/Who touched the rim… I need soothing/My lips aren't moving/My god is brooding," she intones and then gasps over the word "soothing".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2017, with the headline 'Musings on identity and independence'. Print Edition | Subscribe