Laura Marling has been making consistently great records for the better part of a decade now. Her audience seems a small but appreciative one and newcomers often speak of the English singer-songwriter in reverent tones. Rightfully so. She writes and performs without overstatement in a voice that could be mistaken for delicate with its often airy touch. Yet there is more strength to said voice than one first registers, something Marling reminds us of on this gorgeous nine-song exploration of the powerful and often complex relationships that women share. Latin for “always a woman,” Semper Femina is a refreshing collection from a performer whose charms never waver.

“Soothing” opens the album with the singer denying entry to one of those forces that blows in and out of our lives, causing emotional havoc. Though their charms can be difficult to resist, there comes a time when one must do exactly that. Marling does this without anger, announcing instead that she wishes to banish this mysterious figure with love. The bass lines that weave in and around the taleour heroine relays set the perfect emotional tone for a song that offers no easy answers. “The Valley” touches on the need for love and stability, no matter how elusive the object of our desire may be. The music and vocal performance recall music from another time, the best work of Laura Nyro, Sandy Denny and the like. It’s not as much derivative as it is a necessary homage, an acknowledgement of a past that is too often neglected.

Not all the touches are subtle. Marling strikes a formidable attitude on “Wildfire,” issuing one of her most blues-based performances to date, proving herself a capable talent in the idiom. “Nothing Not Nearly” gives us another glimpse. “Don’t Pass Me By” is nothing short of haunting. A plea for companionship and understanding (as many of these numbers are), its emotional climax floats just beneath the surface, rewarding the patient listener who unravels its mysteries one layer at a time.

There’s room for playfulness in the musical setting of “Always This Way,” one of several moments here that recalls Tom Waits’ most emotionally bare moments on Mule Variations. Lyrically, it’s less the former and more the latter. It’s an examination of a relationship that’s slipped into ellipses, dangling unfinished and unexplained. Marling mourns the bond, reminding us that the unanswered questions are the most difficult ones.

Her voice and her songs have never truly sounded as lovely as they do here. Her performance on “Wild Once” proves this point. She moves between the understated sweetness we’ve heard elsewhere and the bitterness that has been kept in check throughout. That’s not an easy feat for any vocalist, especially one not given to overstatement, something most singers would reach for. The promises we make to ourselves come to the fore throughout this collection, especially on “Next Time.” It’s intimate enough that one imagines they’ve just had a peek at the artist’s private diary, albeit without the rawness one might expect.

Semper Femina gives us an audience with a great talent, a writer and performer who works just outside the confines of the easy-to-place but never crosses into strange for the sake of strange. It’s difficult to explore the topics she does here with some semblance of the new and yet Marling does that consistently and better than most could hope to. It’s hard to know how she maintains such a high quality of work, year after year. Then again, maybe the thing to do is not question it but rather embrace it for all its charms and beauty.

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