Thoughtful and introspective as ever, Laura Marling’s sixth album Semper Femina makes a measured and deeply personal study of female friendship. This is very much an album about women; however, it is not the male gaze, but the female through which we see them. Marling subverts and reclaims stereotypes placed on women; even the quote from which the album title is taken, the supercilious warning of Roman poet Virgil that “woman is always fickle and changeable” is embraced. Plucked from the statement, ‘always woman’ (or, ‘Semper Femina’) becomes an empowering affirmation of identity; one that Marling in fact had tattooed way back in 2011. The loving and reverential track ‘Nouel’ (dedicated to a close friend of Marling’s, one who she made during her soul-searching period in LA) celebrates this quality. Joyfully, and with no small amount of tongue-in-cheek mirth, she declares “Fickle and changeable are you / And long may that continue”.

Refined and focused, Semper Femina is Marling’s simplest and most succinct album in several years. Although each track differs somewhat drastically in style, from the pulsing bass line of ‘Soothing’ to the light and erratic guitar fingerpicking of ‘Next Time’, each comes together to form a cohesive and deeply relatable whole. Reminiscent of some of her earlier work, this album is largely focused around Marling and her guitar. A confessional series of songs follow both the joys of friendship (‘Nouel’, ‘Nothing Not Nearly’) and, on tracks like ‘Always This Way’ and ‘The Valley’, those which become distanced. Marling takes a step away from the more folksy sound she favoured on 2013’s Once I Was An Eagle and the more electronic leanings of Short Movie (2015) to return to humbler acoustic roots. In doing so, she creates a timeless singer-songwriter album, reminiscent of the great Joni Mitchell’s later work and, akin to her 2011 album A Creature I Don’t Know, profoundly influenced by Leonard Cohen.

“I started out writing Semper Femina as if a man was writing about a woman,” Marling explained in a press release. “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.”

Although ‘The Valley’, ‘Wild Once’ and ‘Next Time’ share a Simon and Garfunkel element of multi-layered harmony, this harmony stems solely from Marling; her voice layers beautifully, forming a hypnotic echo. As her music increasingly defies genre, so does Marling’s accent which alternates between home-counties precision and a southern drawl. It grows and develops, as if her very identity forms itself anew on each track, and on each relationship she contemplates. Her identity as an autonomous woman and her reluctant dependence on the affection of others is noticeably something Marling is still coming to grips with; she reassures herself on ‘Always This Way’ that “At the end of the day / At least I can say / I made my own way”.

Both refreshingly varied and calming, Semper Femina shows Marling in full control of her powers. At the age of twenty seven she continues to mature and grow as an artist, and this newest release is without a doubt her most refined to date.