For most of its existence, folk music has functioned less as a popular performance style than as a means of preserving cultural heritage and clarifying social relations—the voice of the people passed down through communally developed songs played out on easily obtainable instruments. As the circumstances which fostered these insular conditions have changed, and as the transfer of oral traditions have shifted to other, newer musical forms, modern folk has shifted from a source of populist expression to a conduit for artists hoping to cloak their music in an air of classical authenticity.
This often results, especially in an era dominated by the sheen of mainstream pop, in reactionary, faux-homespun music that’s often hopelessly affected. Yet for all the hordes of guitar-toting, po-faced dullards seeking to bury solipsistic mediocrity beneath a banner of artisanal craftsmanship, there’s a handful of breakout artists who manage to genuinely tap into the original spirit of folk. In this sense, Laura Marling stands out as the contemporary equivalent to someone like Joni Mitchell, a figure who subverts traditional folk strictures in order to create her own highly stylized take on the genre.
On Semper Femina, Marling offers a perspective that’s distinctly modern in its mixture of stringent self-analysis and inquisitive open-mindedness. The singer’s mellifluous voice cycles skillfully from an intimate spoken-word delivery to a warbling croon, a variety of modes that assure that her archly constructed narratives also feel fleet-footed and expressive. The album’s lyrics provide a few wry insights into fears, passions, and frustrations of everyday life as a woman, maintaining a dispassionate, analytical approach that marries poetic wordplay with observational detail.
The album’s title originates in a line from Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid: “varium et mutabile semper femina,” which translates to “woman is ever fickle and changeable.” Here, such mutability is embraced by Marling as an aptitude for adaptation rather than mere capriciousness. The phrase pops up repeatedly in “Nouel,” a sprightly, mysterious character study that’s profiling either an older woman, a painting, or a cat, and which manages to work in deeper questions of mortality and the male gaze into its series of spry metaphors. Songs like “The Valley” and “Always This Way” operate in similar fashion, standing as ruminative appreciations of the beauty and complexity of other women, delivered from a definitive observational remove that’s always aware of the acute burden of representation.
The result is an album that seeks to push folk’s innate naturalism into an even more progressive space, eschewing any trace of outmoded roles and stereotypes. In doing so, Semper Femina never feels strained or disingenuous, the effortless antithesis to the studied, conservative posing of so much modern folk, which has become crystallized in the work of an artist like Father John Misty, who uses his music to evince snide, sardonic distance instead of offering empathy or insight to the stunted characters he depicts. Marling’s music, on the other hand, represents a real connection to the genre’s roots, offering a scrupulous reckoning with the realities of self matched by an expansive respect for the sanctity of other lives, poised at the contemporary forefront of a historically compassionate songwriting tradition.