Monday, March 13, 2017

album review: 'semper femina' by laura marling

So I'll admit I was pretty slow to the punch to cover Laura Marling's last album Short Movie in 2015. There was a lengthy back catalog to listen through and decode - mostly because Marling's exploration of themes and ideas reflected wisdom and nuance beyond her years - and despite being transitional and what I'd argue is a slightly lesser entry in her discography, there was still a lot to discuss and untangle. But again, it was transitional in every sense of the word - not only did it feel like a stylistic shift away from her acoustic sound to add more electric distortion, albeit feeling a bit listless, thematically it was tracing different directions too. This was a record that was partially inspired by her move to Los Angeles, and the mingled desires for companionship and lonely purity that ran through it. All of this led to an album I liked but didn't love, and while there are a few standouts that I do revisit to this day, it's not really a record that I return to very often.

And believe it or not, while most critics were a bit warmer on it than I was, they tended to fall into similar opinions, that it was a bit of a lesser entry in her discography compared to I Speak Because I Can or Once I Was An Eagle. Not so this time around - in fact, the critical acclaim that Marling has received for her exploration of definitions of femininity has been considerable... not that I'm entirely surprised here. Marling has been a critical darling for some time - deservedly so, I should add - but there is also a pretty significant subset of well-meaning critics that'll throw praise for the exploration of specific themes without really touching on whether they're done well. Now again, it's Laura Marling, she's got the sort of insight and tact that can lead to brilliant writing, and especially coming after Short Movie, I was curious how she was going to evolve her sound. So what do we get with Semper Femina?

Well, it was a fascinating listen, and just like all of her albums this required a fair bit to decode... but it fell into a perplexing spot that I'm not sure works all the way through. Again, just like her last album conceptually there's a lot to really appreciate, but it feels like a record trying to marry a few ideas that I don't think totally work, all against instrumentation that might feel like a more defined fusion of acoustic and electric than on Short Movie, but also lacks its urgency and standout hooks. So bear with me, folks, this might take a bit to explain.

And to start... well, hell, we need to start with Marling herself, because you all know she is one hell of a singer. Clear and balanced tones, capable of dipping into a lower, sing-talk register where she can swear freely or slipping into her upper register for fluttery high notes to end a song, she's received comparisons to Joni Mitchell throughout her entire career and I could listen to her sing all day, especially when the carefully arranged multi-tracking is on point and she does get a little feistier... which unfortunately doesn't show up often on this record but on tracks like 'Wild Fire' it's certainly welcome.

But what is she singing about? Well, if you read between the lines on 'Soothing' it seems like a rejection of sexual advances from a certain 'hopeless wanderer' - of which I sincerely hope that's an intentional reference, given Marling's past - but really it rings as larger, the rejection of a certain male gaze that only serves to consume or control or dominate. But then Marling does something interesting - according to an interview with Fader, she began writing this album from the perspective of a guy writing about women, only to come to the realization that more often than not these were emotions rooted in her own passion, and that she didn't need to justify them as one sex or the other. And while this did lead a lot of critics to start questioning her own sexuality, I'm not sure that appropriate - you could easily see the messages of missed connections, broken relationships, apologies that ring hollow and questions whether her difficulties makes her less worthy of love as platonic rather than romantic, and while sexuality does not go unstated, it's not the primary driving force. Of course it's all pretty oblique - a girl is only named on 'Nouel', which is arguably the thesis point of the record - and in the mean time the usage of pronouns means that it can be tough to trace the throughline of the stories Marling is looking to tell... which I think might be part of the point. These are intended to be framed as universal stories, even down to the lines emphasizing and reclaiming Virgil's old declaration of 'semper femina', owning that fickle and transitive property that's no less potent. And honestly, I'm conflicted about this approach, mostly because I think there's a false equivalency drawn between passion and love that I think is a frustrating misstep that undercuts the entire record's theme. On the song 'The Valley' Marling says 'we love beauty 'cause it needs us to', which implies beauty - and by extension passion's - value because it's short and it won't always last - which was very similar to White Lung's thesis on 'Below' last year, to which I can agree. But love... it extends longer and means more than that, a very different sort of transcendence compared to raw but fleeting passion, and more often than not because of the lack of specifics in the details I got the uneasy impression I was getting excuses for capriciousness that was equated as love. I understand and appreciate claiming agency for passion or lack thereof and its consequences on songs like 'Wild Once' or 'Nouel', but by avoiding the details of these connections, it runs the risk of feeling just as detached as the male gaze can be, and I know that's not Marling's intent.

But maybe part of the problem is that the instrumentation and production didn't really stand out to me as much as I wanted. Putting aside the little irony that all of Marling's backing band and her producer Blake Mills are men, this record decidedly feels more deliberate and reserved than the rougher aggression that underscored a lot of Short Movie. That's not saying there isn't tension on songs like 'Soothing' thanks to the sharp brittle percussion and bass melody, or there isn't beauty on songs like 'Valley' with its string section or the choppy edge of 'Wild Fire' or the primarily acoustic 'Nouel', but I do think some of the electric integration is a little shaky, like the fuzz that lurks behind the bridge of 'Next Time' or the main electric lines that run through 'Don't Pass Me By' against the fizzy beat or 'Nothing, Not Nearly' - not bad production, mind you, but it doesn't quite feel as well-blended as it should. But beyond that Marling herself even said she was aiming to focus more on lyrics so she opted to slightly simplify some of the arrangements - and I hate to say that it shows. Not that the melodies are bad, but I don't find the hooks as immediate or interesting - presuming we get them at all - and I have to question why Blake Mills didn't do more beyond some very tasteful strings to augment them. He's not a bad producer, but I don't find him particularly interesting either, and a record like this could have afforded some compositional or production risks that we didn't quite get.

But as a whole... you know, I referenced White Lung earlier, but the record that Semper Femina reminds me a lot more of is A Seat At The Table by Solange - potent themes, a couple utterly gorgeous moments, but also maybe a little too reserved and underwritten to convey the bigger ideas that lie beneath it. And like that album, I can see Semper Femina resonating a lot more with women than with men, and I can accept it's not for me - but as I've said countless times in the past, the truly great material in this vein can transcend that, and by playing to broader universality in the lack of detail in the writing I'd argue Laura Marling blurs an otherwise potent message - I get being cryptic and poetic, but you want to avoid conflation in this territory. That said, I'm still giving this a solid 7/10, it's a damn good record from a ridiculously talented performer that I respect tremendously... I just wish I liked it a lot more, that's all.

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