She speaks a word and it gently turns to a perfect metaphor

Yesterday’s rather pathetic little note aside (I was worrying that I wasn’t going to get anything said at all…), I’m still processing the huge news of Mark E Smith’s passing, mostly unsuccessfully. But instead, here’s something completely different that’s been germinating for a couple of weeks…

I’ve felt for a while that I should, you know, concentrate harder on stuff. I spend far too much time flitting drunkenly from one sticky treat to another, like some sort of doe-eyed lush, lazy, ill-disciplined, and unwilling to apply myself. But I’m better than that, I tell myself, I’m a gentleman of a certain age, after all, it can’t be beyond me…

So, 2018, here we go. Load up with some Laura Marling, have a crack at something different, I’m up.

Laura Marling

(Just reading those lines back, I’m making a bit of a meal of it, aren’t I? It’s hardly Throbbing Gristle or Stockhausen – it’s light, it’s gentle. it’s acoustic, nothing to fret over. The problem as such is that she’s not Latin or African; she doesn’t use a wah-wah; she sings in English (for God’s sake) and at a mere 27 she’s still very much alive. She’s white, popular, well-heeled and articulate. Where’s the fun?)

Semper Femina is actually Marling’s seventh album, I believe, (so, once again, we’re arriving at the party fashionably late), and has garnered armfuls of sought-after awards and nominations for her previous six. I’m not yet up to speed about any of these other ones, but that’s something I’ll need to sort.

She’s apparently pretty sparing with her interviews, so I’d definitely recommend a read of this one from The Line of Best Fit, either to catch up like me, or to puzzle your way through some of her taut, complex ideas…

When you listen to a new artist, you tend to look for easily-drawn lines and boxes to put people in (to get a handle, as much as anything) but the thing that struck me as I went through the initial listen, is how different the first three tracks sound to each other. The clunky, catchy rhythms of opener “Soothing” sound as if they could’ve come from a Tom Waits record. Ah-ha, I think, until the more conventionally singer-songwriter feel of “The Valley” flitters into view. OK…, thinks I, and then we’re into the vaguely soulful trembling chords of “Wild Fire”. All three songs are really strong but slightly disorientating for a newbie trying to bed in.

There’s a similar range throughout the record, which may well be a Marling “thing”, but leaves you feeling a bit heavy-footed as you venture in deeper. I’ve now listened to the record a good few times and can honestly say I don’t feel much closer to knowing what Laura Marling sounds like. It’s all a little unsettling.

I’m guessing this is not an accident. You go through some of the reviews, and the first thing they mention is that this is an exploration of femaleness and the artist’s identity – and if that’s not intimidating enough for a clumsy middle-aged bloke, the songs are all frighteningly accomplished. She plays with poise and with purpose, the arrangements are confident, and although I’m labouring a point about the different vocal styles, they’re never less than spot-on. I’m impressed, (and intimidated).

The title of the record, addresses the issue of femininity directly (if indirectly – it’s part of a quote from Virgil about the fickleness of women – as any fule know), which is another dimly flashing light for this old git. It’s like a lighthouse that seems to say “Don’t go near these rocks, you won’t understand”. And, lo and behold, I don’t. This is a set of lyrics that certainly don’t over-explain themselves, the songs are personal and feel like they’ve been pared down to the bone at times. There’s no context and little time wasted on filling you in. Keep up, they say. Try harder!

All of this would suggest that Semper Femina is not for me, that it’s a land of prickly, unfriendly metaphors that I’ll not be comfortable with, that I should actually go back to my safe place of goofy psychedelia and fuzzy garage, but actually I can’t leave the damn thing alone. Each knotty line sticks wilfully in my mind from one song to the next. It’s the best sort of ear-worm and bizarrely enough, I think I’ve played it more than the Fall Peel Sessions box set I armed myself with Thursday morning.

I’m particularly fond of this ungainly thing with its dual bass-lines…

 

There are a number of songs here that I’m still not really clear about but this is OK, and the enchanting prospect of getting to know them better is running through my mind as I write. I know it’s a mistake to think the most recent record is the one all the others have been leading up to, (although, there’s also the thing about the title having been tattooed on her thigh for the last ten years) but… I can’t help thinking that the recording of Semper Femina is something significant for Laura Marling.

I think I’m going to have another listen…

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