Moving on is one of Laura Marling’s more intriguing tendencies. So is her work rate – in less than 10 years she has released six studio albums, and there simply isn’t another songwriter out there that can match her quality control across consecutive records.
Marling's 2015 album Short Movie was a far remove from her previous four in that she replaced acoustic treatments with a rumble of dissonant guitar work. With Semper Femina, she turns about face again, reverting to (mostly) delicate finger-picked guitar but with a deft variant on familiar stylistic templates and a completely new set of narrative concerns.
The clue for the latter is, of course, in the album title – the Latin for "always a woman". Here, across nine songs, Marling notes (in an accompanying press release), "I started out writing Semper Femina as if a man was writing about a woman. And then I thought, it's not a man, it's me – I don't need to pretend it's a man to justify the intimacy of the way I'm looking and feeling about women."
Devised while touring Short Movie across the globe, she writes exploratively about the erratic nature of relationships (The Valleys), historical figures (Wild Once), hidden figures (Nouel, about Lou Andreas-Salome, 1861-1937, the world's first female psychoanalyst), and, mostly, how women are perceived by themselves and others.
As a dedicated concept for a suite of songs, it’s a particularly well-executed one, with a lyrical curiosity that unearths numerous truths of one standard or another, all to the benefit of the listener.
Stylistically, Semper Femina is classic acoustic US female singer-songwriter (Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Laura Nyro) with occasional sniping Bob Dylan and soulful Dusty Springfield inserted for no good reason, perhaps, other than that it sounds perfect.
Six exceptional albums in, and not yet 30 years of age? There’s no reason to doubt that for Laura Marling the road ahead will be lengthy, stimulating and diverse.