When Florence and the Machine (FATM) played at Lollapalooza in 2015, frontwoman Florence Welch had a conversation with the oncoming storm that threatened to end the night early. With gray clouds already besieging Grant Park and lightning flashing on the horizon over Lake Michigan, Welch begged the tempest to hold off for just a few more minutes, just so they could end the concert on a high note. As a light breeze swept over the crowd and stage, the opening strums of “Dog Days Are Over” began. Welch danced in a Stevie Nicks-like trance as the full force of the band joined in, the wind simultaneously picking up along with the energy of the crowd. In that moment, it seemed like the music was shaping the world around it.
While the group has released several songs to accompany film soundtracks, there has been a three-year gap since their last album, 2015’s “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” (HBHBHB) and the absence has been glaring. On April 12, FATM released their new song “Sky Full of Song” in anticipation of this year’s Record Store Day, the annual celebration of independent record stores across the world, on April 21. The song serves as the lead single for their upcoming fourth album “High As Hope,” which is expected to release in late June. The song echoes the anthemic peaks that are typical to the group’s earlier discography but pulls the focus in on the one constant in the band’s arsenal and easily the most distinctive quality of their music, Welch’s voice.
As if approaching her lover for the first time since “HBHBHB,” “Sky Full of Song” begins with Welch taking a breath, a moment of vulnerability without the extravagant band to support her, before asking her love interest how he is and admitting the weariness her past recklessness has induced in her. Welch’s voice, both physically and lyrically, is at its best when she can speak from that personal level that is dualistically so specific to her life, yet universally recognizable and true to the listener. The song’s bridge, “I thought I was flying but maybe I’m dying tonight,” reflects the maturity that Welch’s voice has evolved to, no longer in the days of dancing with abandon but instead making mistakes and being uncertain. One of the distinctive parts of a FATM concert is seeing Welch get lost in the music, serenading herself and singing with her eyes closed. While Welch has mentioned that she uses music as a form of escapism, in “Sky Full of Song,” she must confess that she can sometimes go too far away.
As an opening to the era ahead, this song hints at more introspection into the self-destructive tendencies Welch has been fighting in “Shake It Off” and “Ship to Wreck.” Two of the developments that “HBHBHB” brought were a narrative structure and the increased incorporation of the harder guitar sound. Some called the latter addition blasphemous in the same vein as Bob Dylan going electric, especially for a band that reintroduced the harp into pop music, but the energy matched the unease and self-sabotage of the era. FATM’s guiding force throughout their music has been the emotion that each song magically is able to conjure. And while the style for “High As Hope” seems to be minimalistic, it’s not as out of the blue. FATM already dipped their feet into this approach with “St. Jude” and the underrated “Long & Lost” from “HBHBHB.”
The music video that accompanied “Sky Full of Song” is just as minimalistic, filmed mostly in black and white and consisting of Welch lying on the ground and washing her hands in a bowl of water interspersed with imagery of fluid-like ink blots and burning candles. One can compare this to FATM’s previous music video sequence referred to as “The Odyssey,” the vibrant and very extravagant nine-part series of music videos that loosely told a narrative and featured significant choreography. For “Sky Full of Song,” there is no ostentation or elaborate dance to accompany it. Instead, Welch presents herself, making eye contact with the camera while singing about what she’s done wrong.
The band’s arc has been often compared to the work of British musician Kate Bush, whose career began with the catchy “Wuthering Heights” and “Babooshka” before eventually writing artistically innovative pieces like “Running Up That Hill” and “Cloudbusting.” The days of FATM’s cheery indie pop with “Dog Days Are Over” and “I’m Not Calling You A Liar” are not completely gone, but now that FATM have proven their musical versatility with “HBHBHB,” they can further allow their art to be a form of expression.
FATM manage to mingle art and pop without veering into the pretentiousness of bands like Arcade Fire or indie vagueness of some groups like The Lumineers. Maybe it’s the harp, which manages to sprinkle a bit of Celtic mysticism to their sound. Maybe it’s the sheer power of Welch’s voice as it travels across crowds of thousands. Or it could be the lyrics that capture that inner part of us that we hate and tell ourselves that we’ll change but never do.
Mozart, in Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus,” says, “I bet you that’s how God hears the world: millions of sounds ascending at once and mixing in His ear to become an unending music, unimaginable to us.” Florence and the Machine somehow comes pretty close.