Florence + The Machine have not released an album since before The Addison Recorder was founded, and anticipation for their third long-player has built over that four-year stretch thanks to a smattering of hit singles and live performances. If there were any fears that the long wait might have resulted in disappointment, I am happy to report that such worry is groundless. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a sterling, entrancing collection of powerful songs.
Leading Up to the Big and Blue
Florence Welch is blessed with one of the greatest voices of our generation, one made for soulful belting and operatic lyricism alike, and she has the songwriting talent to match her vocals. All of these gifts were in full in display on her and The Machine’s debut Lungs, a thunderous collection of pop/rock/soul tunes with hook-laden music and clever lyrics. In contrast, the sophomore album Ceremonials, after teasing the world with the masterful single “Shake It Out” (which is still my favorite song of the band’s), proved to be a collection of songs tied to an overwrought “water = death” concept. The songs were scant on musical ideas but seemed to run on endlessly. Welch nearly saved the album with her bravura vocals alone, but it wasn’t enough, and my first reaction the impending release of the third album was a hope that it would be more Lungs, less Ceremonials.
As it happened, Welch herself wanted a change in her approach to writing and recording. She has spoken in interviews promoting HBHBHB about how the past years found her dealing with relationship difficulties and periods of excessive drinking, and talking with friends and fellow musicians made her determined to write about herself as opposed to more abstract considerations. The result is a collection of songs that could draw an emotional response from anyone: they are sung with a mixture of vulnerability of strength, of someone who has weathered darkness but knows she has gotten through it and will get through it again. A key example is the propulsive “Third Eye,” a song in which Florence’s advice to a lovelorn friend is revealed in the final verse as advice she is trying to take herself. The real, unembarrassed emotion on display extends to the album cover: in contrast to her two earlier records which saw her posed in full-color Pre-Raphaelite splendor, now Florence looks directly at the camera in a stark black-and-white image, as if saying “Look back at me because I’m going to be honest with you.”
Moreover, when Florence + The Machine went into the studio to record these songs, they linked up with a new producer, Markus Dravs, best known for his work with Arcade Fire, Coldplay, and Mumford and Sons. Dravs helps make it the best-sounding music the band has ever made. The arrangements are stripped down on some songs and bursting with strings and horns on others, but however elaborate, the production is so clear that all the instrument and voices are distinguishable.
HBHBHB would be nothing, of course, without good music, and here Florence delivers with songs that are even better than most of Lungs, infusing a new emotional directness with the poetry and towering arrangements. This is clear from the opening trio, as decisive a kick-off and declaration as anyone could wish for. “Ship to Wreck” is a firecracker of a rocking number, Welch holding nothing back with her vocal cords as she lays bare the tumult and struggles surrounding her. Immediately the song transitions into the first single from the album, “What Kind of Man,” and Welch has rarely, if ever, sounded so fiery and ultimately so confident. The song begins quietly and ends in a storm of guitar and massed vocals, as Welch documents a tortured relationship with such venom that it’s clear by the end she is moving on from a life of pain and accusation. (One of my favorite lyrics and a great example of the album’s overall quality: “To let me dangle at a cruel angle/Oh, my feet don’t touch the floor/Sometimes you’re half in and then you’re half out/But you never close the door.”)
The opening salvo concludes with the title track, inspired by a day spent gazing at the clear skies over Los Angeles, and the song captures the ecstasy of someone who doesn’t live there traveling around L.A., feeling a little lost and a lot more free and eager, climaxing in an orchestral fanfare of a finale.
The rest of the album is full of diamonds. “Queen of Peace” features some of Welch’s best lyrics of her career, as she sings of giving all she can but being unable to help a man wrapped in his own pain and depression. It is often said that the best songwriters can make a memorable tune out of any subject, and “Delilah” is a great example; inspired by a day in Jamaica when Welch was waiting for her a call from her boyfriend, the song is structured as one continuous crescendo, with some of her most dynamic vocals. And the hidden beauty of the record is “Caught,” a gentle, soulful ballad with an understated Machine and Florence singing with angelic perfection. (I also give Welch all the bonus points in the world for working the phrase “subconscious solipsist” into the lyrics.)
The record isn’t perfect. Some tracks suffer from Ceremonials’s flaw of extended tunelessness. The worst offender is the penultimate “St. Jude,” which mixes a lack of melodic ideas with godawful lyrics in which Welch, whose gifts for simile and metaphor are clearly in top form on the rest of the album, feels the need to spell out who St. Jude is and exactly how he relates to her existence. Thankfully, “Mother,” a bluesy guitar/organ jam on which Welch seems to be paying tribute to Joplin and doing so perfectly, closes the record on a high note.
“Mother” also reminds us how musically and lyrically diverse the group is; no two songs sound the same on the album, as only Florence Welch’s voice provides continuity. This commitment to musical exploration while remaining in pursuit of great pop hooks, combined with emotional directness, has made Florence + The Machine deserved superstars, and How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful suggests a bright future ahead.
Images from Consequence of Sound and Vice.