ALBUM REVIEW: Florence and the Machine – High as Hope

9/10

It becomes quickly apparent that Florence Welsh frontwoman for Florence and the Machine has been taking inventory of her life. Turning 30 in the period between the release of Flo+Machine’s third release “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” and their latest release “High As Hope” has created a watershed moment for the performer. On the new release, Welsh looks to come to terms with the ups and downs that have been her personal life. A scar or two has been left by the chaos of her teenage years along with at times the soul-crushing professional pressure of public success. “High As Hope” delves into those tribulations looking them full in the face while utilizing Welsh’s extraordinary vocal abilities to deliver her story. “High As Hope” sonically is more minimalist in sound when compared to prior outings but this latest approach heightens the impact of the lyrics and narrative conveyed.

When Welsh and Co returned to the recording studio the question became how do you maintain the momentum of their prior string of successes? Their 2015 album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful would see the musical entity reach the summit of commercial success. The release would chart #1 in eight countries debuting, #1 in the UK and the band would headline at Glastonbury in 2015. The album would solidify Florence and Machine’s consistent ability to produce chart-topping albums with How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful being the third consecutive #1 release. It was not only a commercial success but won over critics as they would receive five Grammy nominations and shortlist for the Mercury Prize. All of this was accomplished with a release that was reminiscent of 70’s Southern California Rock. The album captured Florence and Machine channelling acts like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, transforming that sound into large anathematic sonics placed on steroids. To match the success that followed the release Welsh would bring in Nathan Fillet (frontman Cold War Kids) to collaborate. On the production side, she would reconnect with Emile Haynie who produced on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful and bring in co-producers, Brett Shaw, Thomas Bartlett, and Tobias Jesso, Jr. The overall approach would be concentrating the essence of what Florence and Machine could go into a simplified yet just as potent recording. This would be achieved by going more minimal, but still using the power of Welsh’s vocals and trademark flourishes when appropriate. The result is that a more sober Welsh emerges, yet none of what is quintessentially Florence and Machine is taken away. Throughout the recording, Welsh is seen as growing up and out of the chaos of the past. Instead of chasing storms Welsh seeks to alight on terra firma relishing a break of calm.

Welsh’s lyrics and themes have always worked within the wheelhouse of heartache, family and the desire to be at peace with oneself. Those themes continue on High as Hope. On the release, Welsh becomes even more confessional taking inspiration from other practitioners in the art like poet Anne Sexton and Kate Bush. Welsh takes a risk with this self-revealing move and creates a need for immense nuance. Any mistake on the amount of self-exposure could easily become a navel-gazing exercise with little allure. To her credit, Welsh nails the required nuance as she conducts an earnest pursuit of gaining an understanding of her foibles and their consequences. Along the way she sings about her lifelong journey to fill the inner void and all the wrong ways, she has gone about seeking fulfilment. The saving grace throughout Florence and Machine’s works is that Welsh has always seemed to remember that when she points out humanity’s faults and shortcomings, four fingers are pointing back at her. This ability keeps all their albums and especially High as Hope approachable and relatable to the listener.

High As Hope begins with June and like a warm embrace the listener is welcomed back with Welsh’s singular, effortless vocal delivery. This majestic track is loaded with haunting narrative as it uses minimalistic pauses to build the drama. Welsh identify the isolation of modern life and offers a remedy, “hold on to each other”. This song scratches the itch of her admirers and is the opening revelation to the narrative that will unfold. The following track Hunger simply blows me away. The impact of the lyrics is doubled down upon by the sonics of the song. Welsh begins with the confession to having becoming Anorexic when she was 17 and how that spiralled into numerous other attempts at filling the void in her soul. She goes through drugs, attention seeking and even volunteering and finds nothing can bandage that ache and hunger for fulfilment. She ends up by realizing humans are not perfect, we all struggle with demons it is simply that some people are better at presenting a façade. She stresses we need to cut ourselves and other some slack if we are to find peace of mind. South London Forever continues the narrative reminiscing about Welsh’s teenage years and the folly that transpired. She realizes that carefree time is also fraught with drawbacks and fears. She concludes those fears will morph as you get older into worries about family, children and even “ What if one day there is no such thing as snow?”. The sonics of the track starts with an ethereal aura and transform into a galloping tribal rhythm akin to Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill”. The bittersweet track is an unforgettable highlight of the release.

To me, Big God continues in a most Kate Bush-like approach, with heavy piano with a unique phrasing for the lyrics. The strength of the track is in the minimalist approach that then builds and builds into a “Portishead” trip-hop rhythm about 2/3’s of the way into the song. The topic is a massive taking on of the question of how you fill the God-sized hole in a man, “you need a big God, big enough to hold your love.” The song’s cinematic feeling is satisfying with just the right dollop of dark that makes the track gripping and irresistible.

Sky Full of Song reviews the emotional emptiness of Welsh’s experience with fame and endless touring. She acknowledges the damage her lifestyle has wreaked upon her family and her love life. She realizes it is almost impossible to reconcile her career with a normal life. She is like a moth to a flame, totally compelled, “I can hear the sirens but must follow along.” It is a moving track and displays the conundrum and angst Welsh has found herself entrapped in and the struggle to find a solution. Grace doubles down on the examination of Welsh’s past. The track begins with a letter of sorts asking her sister to forgive her for past transgressions, “Sorry I ruined your birthday”. The lyrics then morph into an examination on the concept of grace. She seems to agree with the idea that grace is wondrous but karma is a bitch who demands payment, “grace I know you carry us.” In that lyric, there is the idea that undeserved grace is the only way back to forgiveness and love. The cathedral sonics make this selection the centrepiece of the album.

The moving Patricia is a tribute to Patti Smith and her groundbreaking career. Welsh with the song thanks Smith for the trailblazing path she cut for female rock performers. She also recognizes how fearless and strong Smith was and the uphill battle she waged, “oh, Patricia you have always been my north star”. Not to be missed is the cacophonous outré that is a spectacular reflection of the Punk era in which Smith rose to renown.

100 years is trademark Florence and the Machine. Within a few moments of listening you can imagine Welsh spiralling about the stage performing this live. The blending of her acapella vocal with eventual piano and hand clap accompaniment makes for a strong brew that ends in an ersatz tribal rite. The playlist’s vibe changes to a more electronic tact on The End of Love where the bleating synths build a kaleidoscope of shimmering notes. It is a torch song that attempts to keep life and love from departing. As ever Welsh’s delivery is perfect and engrosses the listener.

The final track No Chorus is a self-deprecating examination. It displays what happens when you realize that although the tempestuous dramas of life make for a more interesting narrative and fodder for songwriting; happiness and calm are easier to live with daily. On this song, Welsh breaks the fourth wall addressing the listener. She acknowledges that together they are both looking for answers to the unanswerable and she can only offer her experiences as an aid to gain some clarity. This mostly acapella track is moving as Welsh displays her struggles with choosing between drama and happiness, in the end, she elects for happiness and peace of mind.

With High as Hope some critics have suggested that Welsh has not taken the risks she should to progress. I think they are wrong. The depth of her openness and how earnest and unflinchingly she has revealed herself, warts and all is risk enough. How many performers of her level would risk putting to wax a diagram of their shortcomings and past folly? The audacity of not trying to portray a superstar facade but instead displaying her clay feet makes this release so endearing. Her brilliance in coaching those revelations in her now trademark sound keep those same revelations from become sensation for sensation sake and find the listener pulling for her triumph over past demons. The production is inspired in its spotlighting Welsh’s vocal narrative and not muddying the water with overblown accompaniments. That choice makes the lyrics more powerful and when large sonics are utilized puts the stress where it is necessary. Welsh continues in the fine tradition of English songstresses, displaying again on this new release why she is the cream of the crop among 21st Century female vocalists. On High as Hope Florence and the Machine once again display their brilliance and continue the momentum that keeps them at the top of the album charts.