At Chicago’s Lollapalooza in August this year, Florence Welch danced as theatrically as ever as an oncoming storm approached, even delightfully dedicating a song to the lightning. As she gracefully danced up and down the stage, a tambourine beating and sparkling lights blinding, she gave a message to the crowd to take away fear and doubt of any kind and just to embrace everything.
While every concert at some point includes the musicians in some cliché manner telling everyone to just be who they are, few can match the powerful voice, exhilaration and lyricism that is Florence + The Machine (FATM). The concert ended after 30 minutes due to severe weather warnings, but FATM still put on a damn good show.
In the group’s most recent album, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” (HBHBHB), released in June, images of religion, pop culture and childhood sensitivity are constantly arising. While HBHBHB contains less ethereal themes and a lot less harp than the group’s previous two albums (2009’s “Lungs” and 2011’s “Ceremonials”), it still fits within their canon of work, adding a more introspective depth and harder rock sound that the others just skimmed the surface of.
Having been inspired by a recent relationship that fell apart, Florence Welch set out to create a piece of art that personally represented her, and she did so very successfully, as the album unfolds almost like a story. At times, the album may lose a bit of interest and lean toward dullness with a couple throw-away songs, but the overall effect brought on by the album is compelling to say the least.
What really separates this album from any other is the new sound, bringing FATM closer toward Radiohead than Katy Perry in their artistic endeavors. With the added instruments of a guitar to the usual harp and horns, it allows for Welch to sing in a grittier style that fits the words in which she sings, creating a raw emotional sound that almost leads you to the point of crying and comes off as honest and genuine.
This new album also redefines the image of the band and Welch herself. The key ingredient that consciously uncouples this album from the formers is vulnerability. Ceremonials’ “Shake It Off” and Lungs’ “Dog Days Are Over” both splendidly tell the listener to toss everything aside and let better days happen, but the complexity of a song like this album’s “Delilah” adds a little self-destructiveness into the mix, leaving us with a bare portrait of a human soul, one which we can all relate to at some point.
Fans should not be disappointed by this new sound, and anyone who just needs a good pick-me-up of music, whether it be for a breakup, a rainy day or just feeling low, will be able to embrace their sorrows, but then pick themselves up with this album. Retaining the emotion of an Adele or a Sufjan Stevens song with the vocal power of the likes of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, FATM manage to possess a unique sensibility nevertheless.
Highlights of the album include “Ship to Wreck,” “Delilah,” “What Kind of Man” and, my personal favorite, “Long & Lost.” The music videos that accompany several of the songs, all a part of a piece entitled “The Odyssey,” are filled with wonder. They visually capture the artistic elements within each song.
The combined music video for “Queen of Peace” and “Long & Lost” feels the most passionate. Welch and others aggressively dance and fight around an Irish seaside town and a boat, the latter sequence apparently recorded in only one take. Each of the songs is separated by beautiful pieces of poetry. In short, they have produced pure art while still being pop music.
Ever so subtle in detail, I find myself listening to this album in amazement, each time discovering the subtlety of the balance of minimalism and detail that goes into each song. Music can be a kind of therapy and a way to express what we sometimes struggle to otherwise feel. It can be a great motivator and this album is no exception.
Sometimes artists choose to go commercial. In a sense, they sell out and lose the genuine raw power that made them first worth listening to. But of the few that do make it are the ones that walk a fine tightrope that keeps them balanced artistically just the same. Florence + The Machine does so. Their music is the kind you could go flower picking or simply dance to, both at the same time, if you wish. They can be catchy and deep and with HBHBHB; they have added a little current to that tightrope to make an even greater spectacle to watch.
This concept album is of a topic we all can relate to and learn from, as we question the stupid things we’ve done or the loves we’ve never had or the dreams in which we’ve never thrived. But sometimes we learn to forgive ourselves and move on to the next day to work on better art and bigger dreams and greater loves, allowing the past be something that has literally passed.