"They put my hands in water / Told me I'm a god," Laura Marling sings at the beginning of "Wild Once," a standout track on her new album Semper Femina, before finishing the verse: "I might be someone's daughter / I might be somewhat odd."
Fans have come to expect such fable-like fare in Marling's magically timeless music, but those particular lyrics could almost be an allegory for the critical acclaim the British songstress has received over the years, as those reviewers all but worship her work. The response to Semper Femina will likely be the same: This is yet another divine release from folk-pop's reigning empress, full of not only catchy melodies, poignant lyrics and enchanting singing, but also boundary-pushing flourishes that make the album stand apart easily from the work of her peers.
Take "Wild Fire," on which the acoustic guitar is so jangly, and the percussion so rattling and rustic, that the instrumentation evokes a braying horse. She sings about a girl who "keeps a pen behind her ear in case she's got something she really, really needs to say," in what listeners could easily reinterpret as another autobiographical line. "Nothing Not Nearly," another example of Marling's originality, has an even deeper guitar groan than "Wildfire" throughout its verses, making it distinctively enthralling. Then there's "Next Time," which features emphatic, squealing orchestral strings.
Despite the vast majority of the album being downtempo and subtle, especially compared to some of Marling's more pulse pounding early numbers like "Devil's Spoke," the musical surprises throughout will keep listeners mesmerized. A quieter Marling, it seems, is still never less than a fascinating one, especially on the aptly titled opening track "Soothing," which features soft strumming belied by its opening lyric: "It feels like a long time since I was free." Even as Marling sings that line with a lullaby delivery, you can feel its darkly dynamic undertone, the contrasts and juxtapositions that are all hallmarks of her music.
Indeed, there's always more to Marling than the uninitiated might hear at first, and Semper Femina is yet another astounding testament to her talent and the multitudes therein. (More Alarming Records / Kobalt Music Recordings)