Cazz Blase is completely undone by the new Florence + The Machine album, High As Hope
Content note: This review contains brief mention of eating disorders and associated behaviours
I have never heard an album that makes me cry as much as this one does.
It begins with silence. Or what feels like silence in the sonic landscape of Florence + The Machine. Really it’s a low pitched thrum, thrum, thrum of what might be bass guitar. Then, Florence Welch begins to sing.
“The show was ending and I had started to crack” she sings softly.
The first minute of opening track, ‘June’, has more of a feel of Chet Baker at his loneliest and most vulnerable than of Kate Bush or Jefferson Airplane, both of which Florence + The Machine are often compared to. The minimalist aspect dissipates gradually as the song builds up the sonic layers and soon it is soaring into a spiralling crescendo of sound. It is a melange of strings and horns which ends abruptly, dropping the listener straight into ‘Hunger’ – that most shattering of singles.
‘June’ was the first song Welch wrote for High As Hope. It was written in June 2016, right at the end of the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful tour. The band were completing a series of dates in the US before returning home to headline British Summer Time in London in early July. As such, ‘June’ is full of American landmarks and references and it evokes a real sense of pain and claustrophobia. That is, pain in the wider world, beyond Welch and what was happening in her life at the time. No specific events in the US or UK from June 2016 are directly referenced, but there’s a real sense of loss and bewilderment, of sadness and the world rushing in as two people cling onto each other for dear life. There is a sense of love as “an act of defiance”, with Welch urging us to “Hold on to each other”. The song is as ambitious in scope and scale as anything Laura Nyro wrote for her album New York Tendaberry, but with a filmic, brooding quality that is quintessentially Welch.
Just as you can imagine Welch writing ‘June’ at home in South London as she emerged blinking into the light after two years of touring, you can also imagine ‘South London Forever’ as a short story or diary entry. You can see her in your minds eye being driven in a taxi from the airport to home, traveling through the streets of Camberwell where she grew up, reliving her past as a sixteen year old student hanging out with the art school kids and the boys in bands. Welch literally revisited this world in early July when the band played a surprise gig at The Joiners Arms in Camberwell and ‘South London Forever’ has a real sense of flaming youth, an urgency to get the words out against the backdrop of a drumbeat like an urgently pounding teenage heart: Too fast to last, too fun to give up on.
With this album, Welch has reclaimed the freedom to experiment that she enjoyed so much when making her debut album, Lungs. Because no one expected her to return to work immediately after the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful tour, she had the freedom to quietly demo new songs largely in secret at a small studio in Peckham. The experimental sound, including Welch’s percussion technique, is retained throughout, from the sparse bass drum used on ‘Big God’ to the percussion-led sprawling landscape of ‘100 Years’.
The first single to be released from the album was ‘Sky Full of Song’, a sparse, introspective and almost folky track released for Record Store Day back in April. In it, Welch comes across as someone searching, seeking to find a way to come down from and balance the euphoric highs she experiences on stage with her often chaotic emotional life offstage. In the chorus she seems to be pleading for someone to, quite literally, pull her back down to earth.
Second single ‘Hunger’ stops the listener in their tracks with its devastating opening line: “At seventeen I started to starve myself” and goes on to tackles loneliness and the various harrowing or intense expressions of it in Welch’s life. From a teenage eating disorder to drug use and the giving of herself to an audience. It is by far the most personal set of lyrics she’s written, certainly the most confessional, with a diamond hard vocal and pent up sense of ferocious energy that lifts the song and gives it it’s liberated anthemic strength.
To watch Welch perform is to see her owning her experiences, and rising above them. As she explained when ‘Hunger’ was released, it was never intended to be a song. You suspect that, in order to allow it to become a song, and be released, Welch has had to come to terms with her experiences and has made a decision that by sharing them she might help others. How comfortable she was with that to begin with is uncertain, but she seems happy with ‘Hunger’ being out there now and, judging by the heartfelt thanks she gave to the audience at the Biggest Weekend in Swansea in May just prior to playing the song, pleased at how it has been received.
The third single ‘Big God’ makes use of sparse drums and strong horns as Welch sings of a sense of emptiness, of being ghosted by a former lover and of trying to find something to fill the void. At once the most ‘old style’ Florence + The Machine track on the album, and one of the songs in which Welch is deploying her voice to it’s full, powerful, range, ‘Big God’ sounds like a torrid gothic tale of hauntings and recriminations. The anger of 2015’s ‘What Kind of Man’ may have dissipated, but the pain remains.
In ‘Patricia’, Welch issue’s a heartfelt salute to her ‘North Star’ and guiding light, Patti Smith. The song is a fast-paced and complex surging rock song with an ambitious vocal, both of which it would be hard to imagine Smith not being proud of. In the middle of the song Welch jeers “Well, you’re a real man and you do what you can, you only take as much as you can grab with two hands”, taking a passing swipe at male privilege as she powers through the song. The result is a giddy, joyful salute to a heroine that is to be admired as much for it’s musical ambition as for its sentiments.
Equally musically ambitious is ‘100 Years’, an epic and idiosyncratic spiralling piece in which Welch seems to be contrasting the quiet beauty of a nascent relationship with the horrors of the outside world. There is a sense of love as a force for good but that sometimes the outside world seeps in and overpowers that thought. When the band performed the track live on Jools Holland ahead of the album’s release there was a real sense of the live experience, with Welch prowling the studio stage with fierce intent, at times quiet and singing sweetly of love, at other times roaring about streets that “still run with blood”. It sounds nothing like 2009’s ‘Dog Days Are Over’ or ‘Between Two Lungs’, but you can hear how Welch has been allowed to experiment and roam freely with her musical imagination, and that ‘100 Years’ is the result of a process not dissimilar to the one used when creating Lungs.
What comes across most with High As Hope is a real sense of sadness and loneliness. The vulnerability expressed by Welch is different in character to that revealed on previous album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. There is a sense that she is looking out at the world, rather than inwardly at herself. She is trying to understand the world and how she fits into it. Because of the quiet nature of the songs themselves, both thematically and sonically, this does feel a much more exposing album, but while it doesn’t have sledgehammer drums or layers of vocal and reverb, it makes up for that in it’s sheer charm, beauty and ambition.
‘Grace’, an apology addressed to Welch’s younger sister, is particularly moving. It begins with tinkling piano and we find Welch in a soul searching mood, regretting past behaviours and mistakes. Sweeping chords take us into a dramatic chorus, and it has the feel of a song that is almost too real: Big emotion, big chorus, all very heartfelt, very heart on sleeve.
By contrast, the penultimate track ‘The End of Love’ has an almost gospel feel to it at times. On one hand it feels like a natural descendant of 2011’s ‘Never Let Me Go’, with its soaring vocals and big ballad sound. But on the other hand it feels like it could have stepped off Carole King’s Tapestry. It has elements of both. As the ‘biggest’ sounding song on the album it feels more like an album closer, certainly like a future single.
The actual album closer is the initially a capella ‘No Choir’, an uncharacteristically stripped back and subdued finish that successfully subverts the expectations of the average Florence + The Machine fan, who is used to the band providing them with a big finish at albums close. As Welch sings, “No chorus will come in, no ballad will be written” for this is not a typical love song. It’s about the little things that make you happy, the small moments, the quiet moments. As promised, the song has no chorus, certainly no choirs and it ends with Welch softly lullabying to herself, drifting quietly back into her private sphere, no big exit required.
Welch revealed on the Graham Norton show in June that her album’s liner notes have never included lyrics because she always felt that “They were not good enough.” Writing in the Preface to her newly released book of lyrics and poetry, Useless Magic, Welch also reveals that she was nervous of tying the lyrics down on paper, and you get the impression that, for her, to do so is akin to pinning a butterfly: The song has a life beyond Welch; to pin it down is to tame it and constrain it. For her, writing poetry “has in many ways turned out more exposing” than songwriting. “I don’t know what makes a song a song and a poem a poem: they have started to bleed into each other at this stage.” she writes.
Useless Magic includes lyrics from all the songs on all four albums, as well as some of the ‘extra’ tracks included on the deluxe editions, such as ‘Bird Song’ (from Lungs) and ‘Which Witch’ (from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful). Alongside the lyrics and poetry there are also drawings, notes, lists, doodles and photos. The book has a similar spirit to the bands artwork and Welch’s Instagram and Twitter feeds, and it gives an insight into her creative process.
While parts of the book are harrowing, or near the knuckle, other bits are hilarious, and there are some genuinely moving moments. Useless Magic comes across as a project that has been conceived and executed with a lot of love, care and attention to detail. As such, it is a fitting companion to High As Hope, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, Ceremonials and Lungs.
A number of influences appear to have conspired to inspire Welch to write poetry. The Nick Cave book The Sickbag Song has been credited with causing her to think about doing so, along with the work of Ysra Daley Ward, whose poetry collection Bone was read by Between Two Books, Welch’s book club. Between Two Books themselves have also been a source of inspiration for Welch, and are thanked in both the liner notes for High As Hope and the acknowledgments for Useless Magic.
The book club was started by the fourteen year old Leah Moloney in 2012, via Twitter, and has since grown beyond anything both Moloney and Welch envisioned at the time. Taken as an example of the rich and creative fan culture surrounding Florence + The Machine, it’s also an example of a two way exchange between Welch and the fanbase. You suspect that, while Useless Magic might have happened without Between Two Books, it might not have been the same kind of book.
Welch’s poetry has a very different tone to her lyrics: More fallible, more human, less driven to metaphor, and somehow quieter, less sure. She has said that her song voice is very different to her actual voice: The songs being grand and prophetic, the real her being quieter and much more unsure of life. The poetry reflects this but maintains a strong connection between Welch the poet and Welch the songwriter. The album title, High As Hope, is taken from a line in Welch’s poem ‘New York Poem (For Polly)’, exemplifying the extent to which poems and songs are bleeding into each other.
If How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was the heartbreak album, then High As Hope is the grown up album. Welch is in a much calmer, much happier place these days and, while she may have feared contentment as a creativity killer in the past, she seems to have found a way beyond that, beyond the alcohol, beyond the drugs to a space where she can be quieter, observe, think and have the space to create artistic projects that allow her to challenge herself and grow as an artist. It will be interesting to see where she will take Florence + The Machine next.
Both High As Hope and Useless Magic are out now
Image one is the album artwork for Florence + The Machine’s High As Hope album. Florence Welch is captured wearing a pale pink dress. Her red hair hangs over one shoulder and her arms are folded. She is holding two flowers in her right hand, revealing two of her tattoos. Her expression appears to be slightly wary. The image is by Tom Beard
Image two is a head and torso shot of Florence Welch. Her head is tilted slightly to the left and she is smiling. She wears a blue, black and gold patterned shirt covered partially by her hair. The image is by Vincent Haycock
Image three shows the book Useless Magic flanked by CD copies of the four Florence + The Machine albums. Clockwise from top left: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, High As Hope, Lungs, Ceremonials.
Image by Cazz Blase
Images one and two sourced from Sacks & Co