Review Summary: The most confident debut and best pop album of 2009 so far."Taken over and escaping? That doesn't make sense. It sounds like an escape I think. Or the end of something. Or things falling over. Falling down."
Debut albums can be tricky things to engineer in any situation, but Florence and the Machine are tasked with an even more daunting challenge than most. Third in the BBC Sound Of 2009 poll and winners of the Critics' Choice award at this year's BRITs ceremony, they carry the weight of expectation so often piled upon artists which turn out to be mediocre or underwhelming; that these decorations came off the back of a few leaked demos and two singles (Dog Days Are Over and Kiss With A Fist) serves only to pile the pressure on a band touted already as one of 2009's success stories. Fortunately, with its brilliant hybrid of energetic and atmospheric pop music, Lungs is one of the boldest and superbly executed records you're likely to hear all year.
Most of the artists hyped in such ways bring some subtle change in popular music to the table that appeals to an already-established demographic with the false promise of something original; much as Florence and company owe core elements of their sound to other groups, though, their music has a decidedly fresh and new feel to it that's rarely present on releases crafted by anybody this young or inexperienced. The most noteworthy component of their sound is a brilliant example of this; frontgirl Florence, eccentric and erratic at the calmest of times, manages at once to recall pop music's stranger female vocalists (Bush, Björk and so on) and still sound distinct and sublime. Her soul-infused wails and powerful delivery are contrasted beautifully by her more subdued, airy performances on tracks like Cosmic Love, although by the end of this song (and most others) she has morphed into a frantic ball of energy, sometimes carrying whole tracks by herself.
The machine are in no way a backing band, either. Although Florence is evidently (by name and in reality) the focal point of the group, this is definitely a band. Christopher Lloyd Hayden provides the album's drums, which are by far the most prominent instrumental aspect of the Machine's sound; constantly conveying a sense of tension and momentum, when the chorus of Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) explodes, his beats and Florence's vocals combine to forge one of those moments in music where everything in your field of vision is turned into pure awesomeness. There are moments like this throughout Lungs, invoking a desire to dance, scream along and at the same time close your eyes and let the soundscape take you away to somewhere totally surreal. Harps and pianos abound, and there is a perfect balance of absolute mayhem and restrained beauty. The lyricism is often fantastical and usually abstract, intertwining dark metaphors and imagery (My Boy Builds Coffins) with bold-faced assertions like, "A kiss with a fist is better than none." The delivery is furious and sometimes requires a lyrics sheet or multiple listens to get your head around, but it's worth the effort because there are some absolute gems of wordplay.
Despite a slight drop in quality in the second half of the record, Lungs does far more than survive off the back of its more poppy songs; it's an album packed with melody and energy from start to finish. It also works better as a whole than in separate pieces, which is nice to see from an artist so certain to become a mainstream success. Every single track is produced perfectly and delivered with a reckless, youthful abandon so convicted it's difficult not to be swept away. Florence and the Machine are unlikely to be everybody's idea of brilliant pop music but Lungs' crowning characteristic is that it sounds like the band couldn't make a better case for themselves; if you don't like their debut album it's unlikely you'll like anything they release in future. The chances are, though, that you'll fall in love with it. It never lets up and never feels short of confidence. It feels like an escape, one of emotion and energy and joy, and it's time to turn up the volume and let yourself get carried away.