“Many morning I have woke / Longing to ask her what she’s mourning / Of course, I know it can’t be spoke.” — Laura Marling, “The Valley”
The act of being a woman is restrained hysteria, estrangement from the full spectrum of expression. Romance is the first and most obvious arena in which this hysteria plays itself out, but historically, men were given the final say on whether or not a woman’s emotions reach acceptable highs and lows when it comes to love. Hysteria restrained is not a commentary on the emotions of women, it’s a commentary on societal interpretations of what a woman may feel, the access we are allowed to ourselves. To insist upon access beyond that acceptable spectrum is an act of disobedience, an act of indulgence, an act of danger.
Hysteria itself is a description of emotion, a moralizing about its worth and boundaries. So Laura Marling’s music is hysterical in that she insists on setting her own boundaries. On her latest album, she’s set out to give voice to the hysterical inner lives of women she knows, women she loves. The resulting stories manifest as a moving, intimate, and passionate set of love songs. They are sexless, but that does not stop them from being incredibly romantic.
Of her best and most brilliant album, Semper Femina, Marling explained the way she came up against society’s expectations about how she can write, see, and create music about women, and therefore, about herself. “I started out writing it as if a man was writing about a woman,” Marling said in an early press release about the record. “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 me looking specifically at women and feeling great empathy towards them and by proxy towards myself.”
For many female artists, the first urge of escapism is an instinct to leave their femininity behind. To be identified as an artist first, a woman second, is a goal that is just as impossible as it sounds. There are limits placed upon what internal depths of a woman may be expressed externally, publicly. Even if these limitations vary by culture, they remain nearly unanimous in one thing: restriction. To grow up with constant restriction creates a strange divorce within the self, a vacuum of doubt. For centuries, men insisted that “woman” and “artist” were identities at odds with one another, and these ideas remain, haunting every artistic institution, manifesting themselves as the inequality and obscurity that even the most brilliant female creators still face.
Yet, there is also a strange benefit to these limitations. The external bounds of what is acceptable necessarily leave another space, inside, a small space that only women can access. It is a place of frustration, but familiarity. It is a place only a woman could describe, and it hinges on the ability to safely change, move, and expand. Marling is more than aware of the borders that rule the female experience, but she plays the competing forces against one another; obedience versus rebellion, sweet restraint versus wild frenzy. There is freedom in the interplay between these forces — there is romance.
“She’d like to be the kind of free women still can’t be alone,” Marling sings on “Nouel,” which is not the album’s title track, but the one that includes the titular phrase: Semper Femina, always a woman. On the best track here, “The Valley,” Marling watches another woman’s struggle with grief, deeply moved by the mourning process. She wants to create a connection, find the source of the other woman’s pain, but she senses it is not something simple enough to be safely spoken. Hysteria restrained must not explain itself, lest it become hysterical. Marling sings of and to these two different women each experiencing their own form of isolation. They both need soothing, she’d like to give it to them.
Instead, on the album’s lead single Marling demands that for herself: “I need soothing, my lips aren’t moving, my God is brooding.” Her voice rarely moves beyond the slow waltz of a fingerpicked melody, but there is danger here, the danger of going beyond expectation. The danger of being too much. The emotions she describes across her sweeping, six-album discography are the highest order of passion, grief, confusion, sorrow and desire. Yet, her voice is gentle and sweet, she works almost exclusively with acoustic, stringed instruments and soft spare piano.
Marling understands the power of restraint even when she’s investigating the wild spaces within herself, and within others. Women are traditionally seen as the gender of comfort, instead, Marling insists upon her own needs. Still, the song she does it on is, well, soothing. Perhaps the characters in her songs will find respite in the insistence on this album, hearing the tenderness she pours out toward them, and by proxy, herself. Perhaps they will think it’s too much.
For women, there is always the looming possibility of being “too much,” a possibility that, it’s worth noting, looms even larger for disabled, trans, non-binary, or genderqueer femmes. “Too much,” the ugly older step-sister of “not enough,” is one of the cruelest criticisms that can be leveled at a woman, and once spoken, it always sticks. A woman can be killed for being too much, but the more common effects are more insidious. Only decades ago, even for women in “refined” cultures, the incorrect emotions in the incorrect settings could lead to sedation, isolation, shock therapy, and institutionalization. Sylvia and Virginia knew this. For a woman, the act of keeping it together can be synonymous with maintaining personal freedom. The chance to have your own door to shut on the outside world. The chance to keep growing.
“Chasing down a wild fire, are you trying to make a cold liar out or me?” Laura Marling sings on “Wild Fire,” deftly weaving the stereotype of the heartless ice queen and the uncontrollable woman into one line, and embracing neither. The song sounds like it’s veering toward romance, but instead, traces a difficult friendship marred by the pain of childhood. Her friend is hurting, but Marling doesn’t want to be a punching bag. “I would take it all away, You can stop playing that sh*t out on me,” she sings. Of course, she can’t fix anything. She can only be there, she can only speak to the wounds this woman won’t say herself.
Semper Femina comes from a line of Latin, from the ancient Roman poet Virgil, Varium et mutabile semper femina, translated by John Dryden’s glowing pen to “Woman’s a various and a changeful thing.” A rougher translation reads: “A woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing.” Taken down to the two-word phrase, semper femina, it becomes: “Always a woman.” Marling has the line inked on her leg, and she’s spent her sixth album attempting to articulate why it matters to her as much as her own skin. Semper Femina is an album about loving women to the edges of their acceptability and beyond. On “Wild Once,” Marling sings “You were wild once, I won’t forget it.” It is not a threat, but a promise, a vow to honor the things that cannot be spoken.
Semper Femina is out today via More Alarming Records. Get it here.