Album Review: Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Florence’s third album showcases some of her best moments but also some of her worst, writes

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Rating:  ★★★★☆

If the lead single ‘What Kind of Man’ shows us anything new about Welch, it’s how good she sounds when she’s angry. The chorus, one of her simplest, hurls out “What kind of man loves like this?” over and over again. The inquisition suits her voice more than anything she’s done before; her bellowing sound is naturally aggressive, the lyrics wonderfully violent. She’s ditched the harps and rainmakers in favour of an orchestra but even the trumpets give way to her voice when we get to the chorus. It does its job as a lead single perfectly; it tells us, as an artist releasing her third album, that Welch still has plenty to offer.

Whilst still full of the eccentric personality we’re used to, Florence +  The Machine have begun to refine the way they write and produce songs. There is a greater breadth to the sounds they experiment with but every song on this album is self-contained and compact. Her lyrics have begun to stick to one independent theme; the music has a single, defining concept. My instant favourite was ‘Delilah’, a song with both biblical allusions and queer undertones. A frantic, upbeat track, she parallels her relationship experience with the story of Samson, putting emphasis on the different kind of danger love puts both of them in. The way she uses the narrative is effective; she speaks as if she were both Samson and Delilah at times and it becomes ambiguous whether it is the voice is theirs or her own.

The title track ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ is another highlight, with a huge symphonic chorus and sky and space imagery that could make Neil Armstrong giddy. Even though album opener ‘Ship to Wreck’ uses the water motifs she stretched thin on her last album, she manages to find creative ways to use nautical themes creatively and creates something lyrically dark (a fun contrast to the cheerful chord progression of this track).

There is rock vibe across the album that we haven’t felt before and the album has more energy for it. Other than the lead single, this might be most fully realised in the album closer ‘Mother’, a band-led, amp-heavy track which has Welch call on an incarnation of Mother Earth to transfigure her and help her escape her problems. The lyrics tease us in a style reminiscent of early Patti Smith, putting emphasis on the turn from the prominent Christian symbolism of ‘St. Jude’ with the opening lines ‘Oh Lord won’t you leave me/Leave me on my knees/I belong to the ground now’.

Again the harmonica-led ‘Caught’, while a little more on the mellow side, has unavoidable echoes of the Rolling Stones. There isn’t anything remarkably original about the way these tracks sound but Welch adapts herself and the new musical style suits her wonderfully. It is nice to hear real instruments in pop music for a change.

‘Queen of Peace’ might sound pretty good, with a strong, cinematic introduction and a galloping, Western-style chorus, but the lyrics are a poor effort

Not everything on the album is a success though. Though this album has some of her best moments, it also has some of her worst. ‘Queen of Peace’ might sound pretty good, with a strong, cinematic introduction and a galloping, Western-style chorus, but the lyrics are a poor effort. The conviction in her voice feels fabricated; it is impossible to not get left behind by some of the pseudo-medieval imagery, made worse by its close juxtaposition to genuinely fun, innovative biblical and classical allusions all over the rest of the album.

The low point, however, is ‘Third Eye’, a song made up of nonsense hooks and very little substance. It has more catchy moments than the rest of the album combined, but it will get into your head in seconds and then stay with you for life. While on a first listen ‘Various Storms & Saints’ experiments with structure cleverly, it isn’t something I want to play more than a couple of times; it’s difficult to shake the feeling that it’s a draft for the superior ‘St. Jude’. The same motifs are far more clumsily handled and ‘St. Jude’ comes strong in everything this song lacks. ‘Long & Lost’ redeems things. Led by a singular, looping guitar riff, Welch exposes her lovely-toned top range to us on a hook surprisingly infectious for a ballad.

Neither ‘St Jude’ nor ‘Long & Lost’ offer the emotional intimacy pre-release statements told us we would find on the album. I don’t know if that was what I even wanted from Florence. The team have created a pop album that is easy to listen to on repeat for days on end (as I have been), with some really exciting choruses and lyrics that far exceed expectations for the genre. In terms of something written to appeal widely and commercially, How Big is a success.

 

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