Cazz Blase reviews Florence + the Machine’s latest album and finds Welsh’s ability to follow her own path and confound people’s expectations, while soaking up diverse musical genres, to still be in full force
I am struggling to think of another band or artist today who can divide the public like Florence + the Machine. It’s enough to make you wonder what on earth Florence Welch has done to upset so many people. She is hardly the first visually and musically flamboyant female artist to hit the UK music scene or the first to have an art school background. She probably isn’t the first to be a bit posh either or to have a big voice. Welch comes across in interviews as being rather excitable, but I’d have thought that would be more endearing than the weary rock’n’roll sullenness practiced by many artists.
What’s interesting about Ceremonials is the extent to which it could be seen to quietly undermine the stance of everyone who portrayed Welsh as some kind of wide eyed fairytale princess locked in a tower, with only the complete works of Kate Bush for company, until one day she escaped to be raised by wolves in the forest. It was always a ridiculous stance to take anyway, but it’s especially so now that Welch has subtly shifted sound as well as image and wardrobe. One of Florence + the Machine’s strength’s has always been a knack for soaking up diverse musical genres & artists whilst also transcending them. There might be the odd moment where Welsh sounds vaguely like someone else, but mostly she sounds like herself.
Album opener ‘Only if For a Night’ may appear to carry on where debut album Lungs left off, brimming over as it is with strings, emotion and heavy percussion. ‘No light no light’ also has its fair share of intense emotion, harp flourishes and pounding drums but it doesn’t emotionally wallop the listener as much as ‘Blinded’ or ‘Drumming song’ did. ‘All this and heaven too’ also could have fitted with ease alongside tracks such as ‘Between Two Lungs’, but there is a growing sense of sophistication and the melodies are gorgeous.
That said, while Lungs had a strong aesthetic of Edgar Allan Poe, two years later Welch appears to have moved on from Poe and Angela Carter to Virginia Woolf. This is perhaps most evident on recent single ‘What the water gave me’. Welch told Krissi Murison in a recent NME interview of her fascination with drowning and her interest in Virginia Woolf and this song reflects both. (The issue this interview appears in is only available for purchase online but there is also reference to the subject matter of this song in a different NME article.)
That aside, it comes across mainly like Surrealist Pillow era Jefferson Airplane had Grace Slick got interested in Millais’ portrait of Lizzy Siddal as Ophelia rather than in Lewis Carroll’s Alice. It manages to make acid rock seem fresh and inspiring.
Of strong contrast is ‘Never Let Me Go’ which is very much the sparse ballad of the album. The track reveals the extent to which Welch can do emotion without simply emoting and while it’s a conventional piece it’s also none the worse for that. I’d expect it to be the next single, but I wouldn’t have gone so far as to tip it for Christmas number one as NME did (in a recent live review in another issue only available for purchase).
Second single ‘Shake it Out’ is also sparse uplifting pop, but with a dancey feel to it that is more Beyoncé in rhythm than anything. As a single it seemed slight and a bit disappointing, but in the context of the album it makes perfect sense. “And I’m damned if I do, and I’m damned if I don’t” she proclaims. Well, exactly…
Like ‘Shake it Out’, ‘Spectrum’ displays Welch’s pop heart. With rhythms that sound positively latin, coupled with simple verses and chorus, this is the one to dance to. In an odd way, ‘Spectrum’ pushes new territory more than most of the tracks on the album and Welch is therefore taking a risk with it. That the risk pays off is evident as this would probably be the biggest floor filler of the album.
‘Breaking Down’, and ‘Lover to Lover’ see Welch getting in touch with her soul girl side, with ‘Breaking Down’ coming on like the ghost of Stax records enhanced by strings and echoey longing vocals. It is akin to Siouxsie covering a northern soul classic, and whilst a little odd as a concept at first, is also a real grower with its taut sense of longing. ‘Lover to lover’ starts well but as the chorus kicks in it seems to turn into the Eurythmics circa ‘Missionary man,’ which might sound like a good thing to some people but it was definitely an anti climax on a personal level.
‘Seven Devils’ sees the listener safely back in Edgar Allan Poe territory, with a gothic tinkling Twilight Zone piano coupled with soul cadenced lyrics: Gospel meets goth, like a haunted church on Halloween. You can imagine this song serving at some future date as the soundtrack to whatever the new equivalent of the Twilight saga turns out to be, in much the same way that ‘Howl’ unwittingly found a home on Being Human. ‘Seven Devils’ is gothic in the same sense that an artist such as Zola Jesus could be described as such: habitually rather than consciously so. The song is liable to go down well with fans who enjoyed ‘Between Two Lungs’ and ‘Blinded’.
The ceremonialistic drum patterns of ‘Heartlines’ mark it out as distinctive from the start, coupled as they are with elegant swirls of both keyboard and harp. Complex in both style and feeling, this is another pulsating song with a huge sound, and whilst Welch doesn’t bleed with emotion, it is emotionally charged. This song is probably the nearest we will get to ‘Howl’ this time around, in that ‘Heartlines’ is equally, if not more, sonically and emotionally ambitious in scale and scope. Welch appears to be exercising restraint here and she seems to have learnt from ‘Howl’ in that respect. The outcome is probably less exhausting for her. ‘Howl’ was certainly tiring to listen to (in a good way) and I would guess probably even more so to perform.
This sense of pushing things to the limit is discernable on closing track ‘Leave My Body’ which marries soully vocals with full orchestral tinged rock. Welch sings of angst and pain, and the rock and soul elements fuse very well here. There are pounding drums with surging melodies and it’s all very ‘heavy.’ It’s a strong finish and, like most of the album, promises greater things to come.
Critics write of Welch as a child of Kate Bush but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum and this album proves it. Her nearest contemporary back in 2009 would have been Patrick Wolf and that’s probably still the case. The two share a similar scope and ambition even if they don’t really sound alike. What links them is a restless creativity, inventiveness and fearlessness in scale. It’s great to hear that Welch is still following her own path and that she has the courage of her convictions. It suggests she is in the music business for the long haul, which I personally see as a good thing.
Album cover pictured first. Second and third pictures from the official Florence and the Machine website and fourth “Before They Were Famous” picture by sweenpole2001 (shared under a creative commons licence).
The second image is Black and white and shows Florence looking up and out into the distance with her arms crossed around her shoulders. The third is also black and white and pictures the band sitting on some steps using their phones. The fourth shows Florence on stage in a white dress in front of a grey/blue background. Her hands are on her hips and she is looking to her left (perhaps at an out-of-shot band member) and laughing.