After eons of underrepresentation, the concept of “female friendship” is suddenly culturally ubiquitous. At their best, these depictions feel complex and lived-in (TV shows like Broad City and Insecure; Lady Gaga’s poignantly wacky song “Grigio Girls”); at worst, they feel like hollow attempts to sell you something (#squadgoals). Maybe the latter has made me a little cynical, because I’ll admit I put my guard up when I heard that the British singer-songwriter Laura Marling was releasing something of a concept album about female friendship. I should have known better. Marling is far too smart a songwriter to settle for cliché, and anyway she’s too much of a wanderer to stick too closely to the confines of a “concept album.” Semper Femina, that new record, does its female characters justice by exploring their contradictions and complications through Marling’s thoughtful lyrics. It might be her best album to date, although that “might” isn’t an equivocation so much as a testament to her back catalog.
At just 27, Marling is 10 years and six albums into a remarkably precocious and prolific career. She’s been an old soul from the start: Her debut album, Alas, I Cannot Swim, came out days after her 18th birthday, earning her a nomination for the 2008 Mercury Prize and endless comparisons to Joni Mitchell. That first record was accomplished and lyrical, but it also had a certain youthful coyness that Marling quickly outgrew. Her third album (and her first excellent one), A Creature I Don’t Know, now feels like the moment when she matured into her strength as a songwriter and added a signature swagger in her delivery. “Where I’ve been lately is no concern of yours,” she sang on the album’s single, “Sophia”; it comes out of her mouth as a weary, weathered, but not unfeeling croak. She was still in her early 20s, but she sounded immortally wise.
Given its titular focus on a female character and its lyrical explorations of sensuality (“Who’s been touching my skin? / Who have I been letting?”), “Sophia” now feels like a precursor to some of the ideas animating Semper Femina. But the most obvious inspiration for this record was actually Reversal of the Muse, a podcast Marling created last year to host conversations with women in different areas of the music industry. (And as listeners know, hearing Laura Marling say the word “podcast” is for some reason the most soothing thing in the entire world.) Guests included the studio engineer Vanessa Parr (who was shocked herself to admit that, like Marling, she’d never worked with a female producer), guitar store owner Pamela Cole, and Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Perhaps the best moment in the whole series was, in a candid interview, getting to hear the Haim sisters commiserating with Marling about walking into Guitar Center while female: “You’re always sitting next to a dude who’s literally killing it, doing like [finger] tapping and sticking out his tongue … and you’re like, I just wanna hear the tone.”
Marling herself is an accomplished guitar player, but on Semper Femina she eschews the more brazen sounds of her previous record, Short Movie, in favor of gentle, hypnotic finger-picking. Amidst this unshowy background, her lyrics pop. Marling’s best lines are conversational yet slyly existential, babbling but precise. Here she is on “Wild Fire,” musing about a friend writing an autobiographical book: “Of course the only part that I want to read is about her time spent with me / Wouldn’t you die to know how you’re seen? / Are you getting away with who you’re trying to be?”
“I started out writing Semper Femina as if a man was writing about a woman,” she said in an interview with The Fader. “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.” It’s sometimes hard to know in these songs if she’s singing about a friend or a romantic partner — and that’s the point. This is an album that posits the idea not only that friendship is a kind of love, but that it can sometimes be a more interesting and dynamic lyrical subject than the more “traditional” forms of romantic love. The most poignant song on the album is “The Valley,” which begins with a quietly heartbreaking admission: “I know she stayed in town last night / Didn’t get in touch / I know she has my number right / She can’t face seeing us.” The song is like a sparse short story with some of the details sketched in and others left open to interpretation. But, through Marling’s richly expressive voice, you do not need to know the exact relationship labels about any of the characters in these songs to know exactly how they feel about each other.
Six albums in, Marling now has the confidence of a veteran. She’s unafraid of evocative lines left open to interpretation, nor wide-open spaces in her production. Semper Femina is her first collaboration with the producer and solo artist Blake Mills, and the sparse, charged silences in these songs sometimes remind me of the most recent album by his collaborator and ex-tour partner Fiona Apple. Marling, though, has carved out a style all her own, combining tradition with rebellion, poise with impulsiveness, and the familiar with the strange. To call someone a folk artist these days too often implies a certain risk-averse snooziness, but Marling injects some of the daring that word used to have in the ’60s. “I was wild once,” she intones in her peculiar, singular cadence, “and I can’t forget it.”