Music Review: Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Florence Welch is known for her larger-than-life, powerhouse vocals and sumptuous lyrics that chronicle impassioned battles with scheming devils and demons alike. In her third studio album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the demons and hell-raisers haven’t left, but Welch seems to have found ways to trick them into momentary submission, and sometimes evades them altogether. Released on June 2nd, the album takes a surprising new direction, a change from the overall tone and stylings of 2009’s debut album Lungs and the dark, literary-inspired follow-up, 2011’s Ceremonials. The previous albums established a writer’s affinity for water in all its forms, from lakes and oceans, to figurative and literal bodies. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful seems to cut back on her signature operatic, life-and-death urgency and the proclamations of a tormented, electric water deity.

Perhaps it’s simply a sign of transformation, the climber’s ascent to nirvana? The sublime beauty of Welch’s creative narratives haven’t lost their lustre; the songs on this third album place greater emphasis on the lyrics and stretching emotion across stark spaces, rather than showcasing a panoramic sound. For Welch and the band, it’s a stripped down sound, guitars that substitute for soaring strings. In an interview with Billboard, Welch admitted: “I did my first press shot when I was 20, and it was the first time I ever saw myself in a newspaper… And so over time, I found ways to protect myself: The hair went bright red, my eyebrows went bleached off, and my clothes were completely black and goth.”

This time, Welch isn’t hiding. On this album, she is sometimes vulnerable, sometimes angry, sometimes clairvoyant, but never timid or cowering. On the opening track, ‘Ship To Wreck,’ the lyrics are simultaneously clever and unsettling, with visions of killer whales singing lullabies and “red-eyed mice scratching at the door.” The feelings of torment, confusion, frustration are familiar storms that Welch has weathered, but the song sets a precedent for the tone of the entire album. On the second track, ‘What Kind Of Man,’ the singer confronts an indecisive lover who insists on testing her loyalties through an unrelenting loop of mental gymnastics.

It’s a pounding anthem enhanced by Welch’s howls, that piercing voice that can easily switch from the rough, jagged authority of Janis Joplin to the ballad-conquering, witchy delights of Kate Bush. The video provides compelling imagery that illuminates the theme of the song. At one point, Welch is manhandled by a mob of red-headed clones, yanking and pulling at her clothes as though they mean to drag her down into the depths of Hades. She also told Billboard: “For that video, we were thinking about ideas of purgatory and Dante’s Inferno…It’s an aggressive song, but I can see my own part in the whole process. I was just as crazy as he was.”

Welch described the turmoil that followed the recording process to ELLE and said of her producer, Markus Dravs, “Markus really encouraged me to be more vulnerable. I like hiding behind things – metaphor, reverb, extra vocals – and he just wouldn’t let me do that. The lyrics were more direct, so the music simplified along with that.” Dravs, who has worked with acts such as Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, and Björk, has leaves his production calling cards in each track. The third and title track are both infused with a sense of awe and wonderment, ending with a horn and flute section that feels refreshingly light yet majestic and regal.

Tracks like ‘Various Storms & Saints’ may feel like they’re almost lacking the fullness of songs on past albums, but they do allow Welch’s songwriting to draw upon the personal, unable to dress up in fantasy or elaborate mythology. Lines such as “The monument of a memory/You tear it down in your head” and “I know you’re bleeding, but you’ll be okay” feel as though we’ve witnessed the cold finale of a breakup that was unexpected but necessary.

Welch, who Dravs described as “one of the few amazing musicians who has a strong eccentric streak,” returns to her eccentric roots in songs like ‘Delilah’ and ‘St. Jude.’ In the former, she works up to a frenzied homage to the woman who caused Samson’s demise. She submits to the seduction of indulgence in the pre-chorus, “It’s a different kind of danger/And the bells are ringing out/And I’m calling for my mother/As I pull the pillars down.” The later has her quietly praying to the patron saint of impossible (or desperate) causes. The video begins with a saturated purple and pink skyline, birds scattering into the dusk. A topless Welch steps into frame. She spreads her arms like wings, opens them wide as though she were offering herself to an invisible god. One can’t help but think of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Summertime Sadness’ video. It begins with the singer in a white dress, alone and singing as though she’s in mourning. Del Rey slowly lifts up her arms, spreads them wide, and then falls off the edge of a cliff like a lifeless doll. The difference is that in ‘St. Jude,’ Welch is at her wits end, and in desperation, puts her faith in a higher power. It’s not an act of all-consuming grief but an act of humility, of hope.

‘Long & Lost’ seems like the prime example of the collaboration between Welch and Dravs, with a stripped down setup but a strong sense of atmosphere, fleshed out by the directness of Welch’s poetic lyrics. There are instances when the collaboration feels more like a compromise, in the case of ‘Third Eye’ and especially ‘Caught,’ a track that sounds much more like the easy, radio-friendly rock of Coldplay post A Rush of Blood to the Head. On the other hand, this foundation seems at home with Welch’s vocals on ‘Mother.’ It’s psychedelic rock elevated to epic by Welch, who asks, ”Mother, make me/Make me a big tall tree/So I can shed my leaves and let it blow through me.”

The deluxe version, available at Target, contains three new tracks – ‘Hiding,’ ‘Make Up Your Mind,’ and ‘Which Witch’ – a demo of ‘Third Eye’ and a demo of ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.’ The first bonus track is reminiscent of something that could’ve been included on either Lungs or Ceremonials, with its playful, upbeat melody. The aggression of ‘What Kind of Man’ is nearly replicated in ‘Make Up Your Mind,’ this time adding the severity of humming guillotines, other worldly powers of lust, and eager executioners. Although some listeners may find ‘Which Witch’ an odd track, I found that it was perfectly in-line with the grandiosity and supernatural undertones of Ceremonials. The narrative at hand isn’t bright nor is the sound comforting and airy; Welch casts herself in the role of a heretic on trial, waiting for the cleansing bath of ready flames. The ending verse promises another cycle of the same pain, a Groundhog Day witch hunt. Yet the resignation and eeriness turn from ugliness to beauty.

Fans who were adamantly attached to, even in love with the swooping mysticism of the first two albums may find it initially difficult to warm to How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Then again, maybe the frost was never that thick. Billboard recently reported that the album hit No. 1 on the Hot 200 chart, a first for the band. It sold 128,000 copies in its first week, a higher start than the 105,000 shifted for Ceremonials.

Don’t think that this acclaim will go to Welch’s head. She revealed to Radio 1’s Zane Lowe, “All that stuff can cover up the things you’re not dealing with, so it was really good to have that time off…There’s being a successful artist, and then there’s trying to have successful relationship, and a successful relationship with yourself. It’s a whole other thing and when you don’t have that outlet [of performing] and you’re forced to face those demons.”

Follow Vanessa on Twitter: @book_nerd212

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