Review Summary: The sophomore we were all hoping for.
The annual NME Awards Tour is a pretty big deal in the UK, since it has an uncanny knack of showcasing the best up and coming artists in music just before their popularity balloons. The opening slot on the four-band bill is particularly notorious, having previously housed the likes of Coldplay and Franz Ferdinand, and back in 2008 - the year in which I first attended - the position was occupied by a madcap ginger who went by the name of Florence & The Machine. She'd already received a fair bit of hype, and gained unanimous approval from the half-filled room, but there's no way that I, nor anyone else who decided to come out early would have predicted Florence Welsh to blow up to such meteoric proportions. Yet blow up she did, and for someone who witnessed her perform before becoming a household name, her ascendancy has been a pleasure to behold. Debut album Lungs was awash with boldness and ambition, and those traits were thoroughly rewarded with sales in excess of four million, while a string of well received festival appearances, most notably at Glastonbury saw her stock raise even higher.
A hard act to follow then, but with Ceremonials, Florence has has produced an album which delivers in pretty much every way one could want of Lungs' successor. It probably won't hijack the radio waves in the way that its predecessor did, but it's the type of record which will be embraced with open arms by existing fans and has the power to convert the few remaining doubters. And yet things could have been so different. The temptation was there to adopt the blockbuster approach, and the singer was even encouraged by her label to head to the US to work with the producers behind Rihanna and Beyonce's mega-hits. However, in refusing to budge from her principles, Florence has produced an album which not only improves on her previous outing, but also ranks among the best released by anyone in a particularly fruitful musical year.
Adventure is something that Florence has never been accused of lacking, but even so the sheer scale of Ceremonials is staggering. Where the majority of Lungs packed a joyful yet direct punch, this record's songs are engulfed with lush textures and dynamic shifts which add tenfold to their density but without ever feeling overblown. Despite what many would have you believe, Florence isn't in fact a solo artist, and while she's the main creative force, it's her band, The Machine who turn that vision into reality in such style here. Whether it's the string arrangements of 'Breaking Down' or the tribal percussion of 'Heartlines,' not a single detail in this imaginative and diverse sound ever seems out of place, and even more importantly none of it ever threatens to overpower Florence's voice, the astounding instrument which takes it's rightful place at the forefront and never for a moment backs down. Comparisons to such hefty names as Siouxsie Sioux and Kate Bush have been fully justified from the start, but with Ceremonials Florence has exceeded practically everyones expectations in making a record which stands up to inspection against the best in either of those artists catalogues.
Despite being consistently excellent throughout the 12 song duration, this album's apex lies with a stunning succession of songs in it's first half. 'What The Water Gave Me' is perhaps the most impressive showcase of the singers' vocal range on the whole album, and along with 'Never Let Me Go' ranks as the most focused track on offer. As far as highlights go, though, it's hard to look past 'Shake It Out,' a lead single so good that it's difficult to imagine how one could assemble a song with more life and joy bursting from it's seams. It's the kind of uplifting and undeniably brilliant moment that few of us doubted Florence capable of, but not many would have predicted that leap to have come as early as her sophomore. The fact that she was expected to reach such heights does not, however, dilute what an achievement Ceremonials is. In fact if anything it makes it all the more satisying, and opens even greater possibilities as to how good she could get should she improve further.