On June 17th, while my wife and I were vacationing in lovely Sicily, The Music and Myth quietly turned three years old. I say “quietly” because I usually have an article up, wishing my oldest writing venture a happy birthday. Since that wasn’t possible this year, I chose to commemorate the special date with a belated birthday article.
Florence + the Machine’s Lungs was the first record I ever reviewed for The Music and Myth. I thought this would be a proper occasion to write something about the band’s third installment, How Big How Blue How Beautiful. The newly released studio album follows the elegant Ceremonials and attempts to do the right thing from a creative standpoint by pursuing a completely new musical direction. But is it the right one? Until very recently I would have said no.
With Ceremonials and the subsequent single “Breath of Life” the band has completely exhausted the creative territory of “big choirs and massive orchestration”. Any attempt to continue in the same vein or try to surpass “Breath of Life” – in my opinion the band’s most powerful song to date, with its heavy theme, booming percussion and sixty-piece choir – would most likely have been destined for failure. But it was exactly this song’s magnificent execution that made the follow up, “What Kind of Man”, feel like a disappointment. Hearing Florence Welch sing about “complicated” relationships just felt like a step backwards, in spite of the song’s catchy, straight-up rock vibe. It just didn’t feel like something Florence and the band should be doing in 2015 but more like a track that belonged either before Lungs or somewhere in between the debut and sophomore releases. The fact that it was chosen as the first promotional single did not predict good things and I had low expectations for the record to begin with. Fortunately, there was ample room to be pleasantly surprised.
I still feel that both this track and “Ship to Wreck” were poor choices for promotional singles because the record has so much more to offer than these two songs would suggest. They are also used as opening tracks with the former following the latter. Initially, it felt like a bad omen for this new project to open with the words, “Don’t touch the sleeping pills, they mess with my head” and continue through a typical Welchian dreamscape of “great white sharks swimming in the bed” and “red-eyed mice scratching at the door” only to reach the hackneyed indecision: “Did I drink too much, am I losing touch, did I build this ship to wreck”. Catchy as the lyrics and riffs may be, it still felt like a considerable narrowing of the pensive scope, especially since Ceremonials opened with “Only if for a Night and “Shake it Out” and followed those up with “What the Water Gave Me”.
On the latest record, the so-so openers are followed by the title track, the first to hint that there might be more to this album than meets the ear. Indeed, the record seems to be the lead singer’s most personal endeavor to date, an almost confrontational recount of exhaustion, heartbreak and emotional turbulence. That makes it perhaps the most honest of the albums, but also the least accessible to new listeners.
The expansive orchestration of Ceremonials is replaced with a raw dynamic of straightforward rock aided by a powerful brass section to help maintain the band’s distinctive touch of melodrama. This new approach of favoring horns over harp makes for a record with a well-defined identity.
“The Queen of Peace” is the first truly great track on the new album. An emphatic, unrestrained stomper with a particularly memorable chorus, the song firmly establishes the record’s musical theme of coupling woeful lyrics with an upbeat rhythm to create a fascinating contrast. “The Queen of Peace” feels like a turning point for the story of HBHBHB and is also the place where the record reaches its full potential. From this point forward, almost all the songs sound like they might be found on Greatest Hits collections forty years from now.
The outstanding “Various Storms & Saints” is a rare ballad where the vocalist – usually known for her imaginative falsettos screamed at full lung capacity – delivers a polished performance that would satisfy the most demanding classically-trained melodist. Over a haunting string section, Florence Welch sings:
The monument of a memory
You tear it down in your head
Don’t make the mountain your enemy
Get out, get up there instead
You saw the stars out in front of you
Too tempting not to touch
But even though it shocked you
Something’s electric in your blood
Her voice expertly transitions from soft and subdued to vigorous and cathartic and ultimately becomes a veritable siren’s song, shaping a simple musical arrangement into one of the best songs not only on this set, but in the band’s entire repertoire. The clap-happy gothgospel “Delilah” picks up the pace with Biblical references and a Sturm und Drang dynamic, while Welch, ever the extrovert, keeps exploring new vocal avenues. The bluesy “Long & Lost” is effective in its simplicity while “Caught” and “Third Eye” alternate between tender melancholy and shouty groove, creating a skillfully paced musical narrative that lends itself well to repeated listening.
The record slows down a bit with “St Jude” an undistinguished ballad which, in spite of good lyrics, feels more like an interlude than an actual song. However, it recovers with “Mother”, a spectacular closing track and veritable rock anthem where the songwriter returns to the phantasmagorical imagery she is known for:
Mother, make me
Make me a big tall tree
So I can shed my leaves and let it blow through me
Mother, make me
Make me a big grey cloud
So I can rain on you things I can’t say out loud
This song is executed to perfection, as the band summons up a wild energy to match the ferocity of Florence’s voice. If the closing track feels somewhat different from the rest that might have something to do with the fact that it was the only song produced by Paul Epworth. It sounds almost like the first chapter of a new story. If “Mother” is a sign of things to come, then Florence + The Machine has a bright future and a solid position in the indie rock scene.
With profoundly personal lyrics telling of failed relationships, almost debilitating vices and emotional aimlessness, How Big How Blue How Beautiful is definitely an acquired taste. It’s certainly a powerful album, but it doesn’t have the instant charm of Lungs and Ceremonials. However, it makes up for that with a disarmingly honest narrative that will almost certainly help cement the record’s legacy over time. It’s a work best understood by people who are already familiar with Florence Welch’s songwriting and cognizant of the context of the lead vocalist’s creative and personal journey at this point in time. Seen in context, even the less-stellar songs like “What Kind of Man” and “Ship to Wreck” possess a certain depth that might evade the neophyte. For the new listener, How Big How Blue How Beautiful might be a skillfully crafted indie rock album that takes a little warming up to, but for the knowledgeable Florence + The Machine enthusiast, the band’s latest work is nothing less than exceptional.