Review Summary: Moving up to higher ground.
English pop star Florence Welch has come a long way since her alcohol-induced performance in the bathroom of a nightclub, during which she serenaded Mairead Nash of Queens of Noize. It became pretty obvious to anyone paying attention that Welch was made for something so much more, and in 2009 she proved it with a debut masterpiece whose skyward choruses and aching crescendos saw staggering commercial success. With the help of her backing band (“The Machine”) Welch endeared herself with the innocent and playful nature of songs like “Dog Days Are Over” and soared above thunderous drumming on tracks “Blinding” and “Drumming Song”, using her voice as a vehicle to channel equal parts elegance and frenzy. It wasn’t long after the release of Lungs
that songs like “Dog Days Are Over” and “Rabbit Heart” were being played by radio outlets, promoted in films, television series, and so on and so forth. No one could complain though, considering the abysmal dross that was being pumped out via airwaves at the time, Lungs
’ knack for exploration and fairy-tale merriment was deeply refreshing. Shortly after, in 2010, Welch set out to create an album that stayed faithful to Lungs
’ tried and true sound that’s, to quote Welch: "More dark, more heavy... but with more of a whole sound." And the final product is just that - something fuller and more grandiose in sound that retains the best qualities of Lungs
. However, Ceremonials
doesn’t reveal itself as quickly as its predecessor; nothing grabs the listener quite as immediately as the excitement and mirth of tracks like “Dog Days Are Over” and “Cosmic Love”, but in a short time Ceremonials
shows itself as a more matured and focused record.
As a vocalist, Welch illustrates the fearless musicality of Kate Bush, the dashing artistry of PJ Harvey, and - to some extent - the endearing eccentricity of Regina Spektor. Welch’s influences are spread all across the board on Ceremonials
-- one of the less obvious ones being Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes -- and her style is, very much like on Lungs
, rooted in British pop music. This time around the themes are more profound, the atmosphere much darker (this is apparent from the opener “Only If For A Night”), and the music very forward-thinking. The theme of spirituality is explored early in the record on the second single “Shake It Out” when Welch cries: “And I'm ready to suffer and I'm ready to hope/It's a shot in the dark, aimed right at my throat/‘cause looking for heaven, for the devil in me/Well what the hell, I'm gonna let it happen to me!” Not only is the thunderous plunge from the chorus to bridge the most triumphant moment on the album, but Welch’s treatise on heartbreak and exploration of rebirth both make the song seem less like a feel-good pop excursion and more like something deeply thought-provoking and speculative. Certain songs also revolve around metaphysics. On the ethereal closer, “Leave My Body”, Welch employs Gregorian Chant and delves into existentialism: "I'm gonna leave my body/Moving up to higher ground/I’m gonna lose my mind." For the most part, Welch fixates on love in all its forms; using vocal chorales and doleful wails to lament the troubles brought on by love. Nowhere is this felt more than on “What The Water Gave Me” when Welch speaks in metaphors about a disregarded lover relinquished to a watery tomb: “Lay me down/I let the water take me/Let the only sound be the overflow/Pockets full of stones.”
As expected, Welch’s backing band does phenomenally well to breathe life into every facet of the record. Evocative string arrangements, ebullient electronics, gospel choirs, luxuriant production, etc., all help compliment Welch’s powerful voice. “The Machine” help create the aforementioned ‘dark’ sounds of Ceremonials
, making it considerably brooding compared to the sprightly nature of Lungs
- but that isn’t a bad thing. Take “Seven Devils”, for example: it’s essentially the “Blinding” of Ceremonials
; it builds on sinister piano chords that rise and fall and is much gloomier in atmosphere than anything heard on Lungs
. It also feels very mature, as if Welch is moving past the stupidly happy pop anthems of Lungs
and instead being playfully mischievous, writing with the same level of substance found on records like Bat For Lashes’ Two Suns
. Everything gels perfectly, whereas on Lungs
there were a couple-to-few obvious filler tracks.
In the wrong hands, Ceremonials
could have been a mess, but Florence and the Machine have a special aptitude for making intelligent pop-music readily accessible to the masses. However, I can guarantee you none of these songs will receive the same level of commercial success as the hits from Lungs
did (and continue to). They lack the immediacy of the debut’s hooks, but it’s usually the albums that demand more attention that end up being the most rewarding ones. The listener just needs to stick with it to unlock its many splendors, and if/when they do, the rewards are much more gratifying than those reaped from listening to Lungs
. Through the evocation of Welch’s poignant words, the album’s resplendent lush production, and minute attention to detail, Florence Welch and her pack of band-mates have crafted one of the finest albums of the year. The drumming is absolutely immaculate, the scope is huge, the production damn near flawless, and the range of instruments is so vast that listing all of them would be an exercise. Epic, harrowing, and sinisterly clever, Ceremonials
is a more than worthy successor to Lungs
-- it’s everything fans expected, and more.
“No light, no light in your bright blue eyes
I never knew daylight could be so violent
A revelation in the light of day
You can choose what stays and what fades away
And I'd do anything to make you stay