Florence Welch front woman for Florence and the Machine is the latest in a line of storied powerfully bewitching songstresses in Rock music. Florence and the Machine’s latest release, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful solidifies Welch’s position among the firmament of magnificent vocalists like Kate Bush, Siouxsie Sioux, Grace Slick, Shirley Manson, Joni Mitchell, Bjork and Stevie Nicks. Released on June 2nd, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is the follow up to the amazing Ceremonials. HB three advances the development of Florence and the Machine stripping away some of the esoterica and delivers an approachable well balanced release.
Producer, Markus Dravs (Bjork, Coldplay and Arcade Fire to name a few) has brought focus and discipline to the excellent material on the release. Welch appears on the album along with original founding member Isabella Summers on keyboards and backing vocals, Robert Ackroyd on lead guitar, Christopher Lloyd-Hayden on drums, percussion and vocals, Tom Manger provides harp and xylophone, Mark Saunders on bass and vocals, with Rusty Bradshaw also assisting on keyboards, rhythm guitar and vocals. On HB three there are fewer tribal drums and harps, but there is a continuation of Florence’s reputation for multi layered expansive songs.
Florence and the Machine were formed in 2007 by Welch and Summers, with Florence referring to herself as the robot to Isabella’s machine. Welch had fronted the band Ashok and that band was just about to enter the studio to record their first album, when Welch got cold feet about being in the band. She resigned from the Ashok and their contract was cancelled. Welch went on to start up the band which would become Florence and the Machine. The band released their debut Lungs in 2009 to significant commercial and critical success. Their sophomore album, Ceremonials released in October 2011 was another massive hit with various accolades and debut at number one on the UK album charts. Success proved to not be all skittles and beer for Welch who suffering from a bout depression after exhaustive touring for Lungs and experienced health problems in 2012 caused the cancellation of two festival dates while touring Ceremonials. More recently Welch broke her foot leaping off the stage at this year’s Coachella festival. Additionally Welch has had her ups and downs in the relationship arena, the recent breakup with her long time boyfriend providing inspiration for the current release.
On both Lungs and Ceremonials Welch had expounded on literary interests, couching many of her lyrics in religious symbolism as she wrestled with how religion connects to sex, violence, love and death. Some suggesting that she projects a persona best described as the Lady Shallot meets Ophelia. Florence and the Machine’s music could be best described as dark, robust and drama filled. Welch is the latest manifestation in a great line of English Pop eccentrics.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful takes a step away from the band’s prior albums atmosphere which seemed to obsess about Ophelia’s drowning death themes among other gothic topics. The album sees more movement across genres. It also moves into a more “American” vibe, with it’s hat tip to 1970’s Laurel Canyon and Fleetwood Mac with Welch embracing Stevie Nick’s top hat wearing swirling archetype. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is full bodied sound that is oh so beautiful. The album is even more spacious than prior efforts but also is more controlled and focused. The album represents Welch’s apprentice becoming the master of her multiple gifts.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, takes on the each of the concepts in the album’s title, the big indicated by the move beyond the pastoral eccentric Britain that ran through the prior releases and out into the world at large. Blue seems to be represented by the lyrics that mourn the implosion of a personal relationship that has bobbed under for the third time. Finally beautiful is represented by the jaw dropping beauty contained sonically on each of the songs. Ship to Wreck is imbued with a 1970’s Southern California in the canyon’s feeling. The evocative vocals are what many have come to expect from Welch, but by no means lessens their power. The song lyrically points out that we are our own worst enemies. We build our own ships to only navigate them into the shoals. We are never completely innocent in our own disasters. What Kind of Man is a barn burner about relationships in turmoil. The song should attract a lot of radio play. It examines the cut and thrust of relationships and calls out the lack of commitment on the part of many men. Welch aptly conveys the fact that she is one very pissed off goddess; it is a beautifully executed feminist anthem.
The title song, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” channels Welch’s inner Kate Bush with a flourish of LA sonic chill. The song builds into a mighty cathedral of a track. A song that honestly examining the effects of fame on a long distance relationship, with fame demanding a sacrifice for its gifts, in this case a personal relationship. Do not miss the amazing vocal control on display in this song.
Queen of Peace has a solemn opening and then kicks into gear with a catchy hook laden track. Welch’s vocals are displayed to every advantage and this will be an enormous track live. The real thrill of the song is when Florence lets loose her powerful vocals on the chorus. The gothic tinged Various Storms and Saints is stripped back and has a very confessional feeling, evocative and melancholy. “…the belly of the beast that took its toll out on me … hold on to your heart don’t give it away.”
The captivating Delilah has a jauntier feel with its dominant and triumphant feel. The tribal drum of Florence and the Machine fame comes back in full flood. The song is a marriage of dance beat with indie pop and makes for pure radio gold. The song harkens back to one of the famously empowered females of history. “Never knew I was a dancer until Delilah showed me how… gonna pull these pillars down.” I can’t recommend this song enough, a real jewel on an album full of them.
Long and Lost is the sneaky grower of the collection. The ballad is delivered in a whisper like vocal. It is seductive and swirling and a slow burner that gets under your skin. Caught has this clever blend of rhythm and blues in the mix and reminded me of Dusty Springfield and Stevie Nicks, taking all those legendary forerunners’ styles and making them Welch’s own. Third Eye has a doo wop start and again contains the trademark tribal beats of Florence and Machine fame and Welch’s wailing banshee delivery. The song is an ode to the third eye of Hindu spiritual tradition, trying to see beyond the concrete into the mystical, “I am the same but I’m trying to change.” The song is the best example of the ebb and flow that is attempted on the entire album.
Another engaging track St Jude changes tempo as it is striped back with an ethereal and hypnotic vocal. The lyric “We were lost before we started” relates to a relationship that was doomed from the beginning. Welch wryly notes how appropriate St Jude the patron saint of lost causes is in representing the failed relationship. Mother is quirky, sensual and powerful. There is an underlying funk to the track and is made even more appetizing with Welch’s powerful delivery. The dance track based Hiding is another quality song on a disc jammed packed with them, and is an additional opportunity to enjoy Welch’s vocals, proving she could sing encyclopedia contents and it would be enjoyable and the audience would cry for encores.
The final track Make Up Your Mind demands that a lover either commits or get lost. Welch sings,” Make up your mind or I will make it up for you.” Her frustration with an undecided partner roils as she states, “While you’ve been saving your neck, I’ve been breaking mine.” A great ending track dealing in both redemption and damnation, she becomes an enraged goddess I for one would not want to cross.
The amazing thing about Florence and the Machine is their ability to deliver spectacular musical quality on each track. Every song is so good you can forget how stellar the entire effort actually is and how effortless it all seems. That is until it is compared to what is usually on offer these days. Every shapeshifting genre manifestation is worthy of the listener’s appreciation. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is Florence and the Machine at the peak of their game, Welch’s vocals are amazing and the accompaniment is so solid and serves the vocal performance of Florence completely. Without a doubt this album will be on many “Album of the Year” lists and is certainly worthy of the accolades.