"Semper Femina" (Always a woman) is a phrase reclaimed by Laura Marling and something she had tattooed on her leg ten years ago. It originally formed part of a Virgil line that shares the philosophy straight out of theBilly Joel Gender Studies Primer, where 'always' and 'woman' form part of a wider statement about how a woman is always fickle and changeable, but Marling's use of it couldn't be further from its origin.
Marling always intended her sixth album to be an evaluation of contemporary female identity, but she observed that in its early development, it looked at femininity as viewed by a man. At this point, she responded to an inner calling to put forth an unfiltered, unexpurgated, unapologetic female interpretation instead. That its release follows on from the Global Women's Marches and post-dates International Women's Day by no more than 48 hours makes this more than just a splendid suite of intelligent but unpretentious songs. Its cultural allusions to literary, artistic and psychological influences occur with the regularity of quiz answers you don't get on University Challenge, yet they are never baffling and nothing feels exclusive. This album is timely and of 'practical use' to contemporary society, as Marling hoped it would be.
Perhaps giving Virgil's 'changeable' label the tiniest smidgeon of credence, or refusing to be pigeonholed into one rigid persona, Marling alternates between voices, her English heritage and her American residence equally to the fore. The album's early releases exemplify this. "Wildfire" is almost drawling, cranky country, asking a potential lover, 'You wanna get high?' which sounds inviting, until she snarls 'You overcome those desires before you come to me.' "Soothing" has a very restrained, yet forthright Englishness to it, as well as pathos worthy of King Lear. 'Oh, my helpless wanderer, you can't come in,/ You don't live here anymore' calmly banishes an unwanted, unreliable influence, the duelling basses throughout evoking a sense of restless interplay between speaker and addressee.
Some of the production gives the album a sense of personal immediacy, with the Joan Baez-like track "Nouel" recording every catch and slide on a guitar string, finishing with the lingering sounds of the studio and a quiet breath. It reminds us, despite the potential grandiloquence of the subject matter, that inspiring strength can also be simple, subtle and small. Both "Nouel" and "Always This Way" quietly contemplate the influence of a female muse, whilst "Wild Once" ponders how age and society represses our boundless boisterousness over time. It becalms us with repetitive guitar picking reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, before inciting, 'You are wild and you must remember.' Closing track, "Nothing not Nearly" does go wild, electrifying the sound boldly and concluding unequivocally that 'Nothing matters more than love'.
Any old-school devotees of the Billy Joel Studies Primer may need a refresher course in humanity, using 2017's Marling Manifesto.