Review: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful - Florence and the Machine
Simon Fearn reviews Florence + The Machine's important new album
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The result is a mixed bag. Lead single ‘What Kind of Man’ refines the band’s trademark orchestral and grandiose sound, giving it a tougher rock edge. The title track is also a resounding success, a gracefully melodic anthem that dreamily sets the tone for the album. Here Florence swaps her obsession with harps for a penchant for brass, to dizzying effect on the fanfare that concludes the song. Arranged by Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, Florence described this instrumental outro as ‘what love feel like to me’ in Rolling Stone. ‘Queen of Peace’ also has an epic orchestral dimension, beginning with trembling woodwind and a hauntingly beautiful trumpet riff, before being swept up by drums and electric guitar.
With a title inspired by the expansiveness of the American skyline, the album offers a sense of space that was largely lacking from previous effort Ceremonials, much of which sounded like it was recorded in a gloomy cathedral. The previous album often proved to be an exhausting listen: almost all of the songs exceeded five minutes and the ‘wall of sound’ approach stopped just sort of being oppressive. Here the songs are considerably shorter, and orchestral flourishes aside, the instrumentation is largely stripped back. ‘St Jude’, a homage to ‘the patron saint of lost causes’, consists only of a keyboard drone and a percussive heartbeat, with a subdued brass section drifting off into the background. When I first heard the song a few months ago, I impatiently waited for it to explode into a dramatic chorus, but on repeated listens the track has shown that Florence is just as successful when she reigns it in a bit. Here, and on album highlight ‘Various Storms and Saints’, Florence’s voice sounds genuinely fragile, coupled with frank lyrics stripped of the usual paraphernalia of gods and demons. Frank confessions abound, such as ‘maybe I’ve always been more comfortable in chaos’ (poor Florence). Yet does anyone really know what Welch means when she hollers that she’s ‘like a boat into oblivion’?
Midway through listening to ‘Long and Lost’, I realised that everything that I’d previously loved about the band was absent. Where was the drama and emotional intensity of previous single ‘No Light, No Light’? What had happened to the anthemic chorus of ‘Rabbit Heart’? It sounded like (God forbid!) a filler track on a mainstream pop release. My frustration was heightened by the opening of ‘Caught’, which contains the most irritating backing vocals you are ever likely to hear, along with baffling allusions to Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt, and Persephone, Greek queen of the underworld. What was going on?
Alas, for every future Florence classic on the record, there is a song that has gone disastrously awry. ‘Ship to Wreck’ is streamlined pop song complete with twinkling glockenspiel riff, yet ‘Third Eye’ echoes the empty bluster of Ceremonials’ ‘Heartlines’, with Florence seemingly bellowing lyrics straight out of a self-help book at the frightened listener. Whilst ‘Queen of Peace’ sounds epic and stately, ‘Delilah’ often comes across as a bit manic. Thankfully, all is forgiven with closing track ‘Mother’, a retro rock song which ends in a psychedelic swirl of distorted guitars.
When it comes down to it, Florence is essentially musical marmite, if marmite had a voice that should legitimately be on the Richter scale and a taste for melodrama. A lot of people refuse to be swept up into Florence world, and the most amusing review of the latest album has to be Pitchfork describing it as ‘one long Ophelia mad scene’. Others, and this is the category I undoubtedly fall into, perceive her as a semi-mythical cult icon who can do no wrong. ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ may occasionally misfire, but I certainly hope we won’t be waiting another five years for the next album.