Review Summary: Be prepared: Flo's Ceremonials has a good chance to get you spellbound.
“All of the ghouls come out to play”, sings south-Londoner Florence Welch on one of the first verses from “Shake it Out”, second and most successful single to date out of her second album alongside back-up band The Machine. Lungs and its deluxe version (Between Two Lungs) were a surprising hit, building its hype on a generation that fully embraced pop music. The verse on the beginning of the paragraph is the one that seems to better summarize the spirit of Ceremonials, released on late 2011 and strongly anticipated by music fans worldwide. Maybe it was the high expectations surrounding it, but the album was received with both critics and compliments. Not that it means something, actually. Ceremonials may be “too big”, “too calculated” or even “exhausting”, but who cares when twelve consecutive catharsis align as a set list?
Welch introduces herself with “Only If For a Night”, and it’s pretty ideal that the opening track on Ceremonials is an ethereal ballad emerging from choirs, organs and keyboards to make Florence’s vocal performance even stronger and more beautiful than it already is. Lyrically, the track portraits her encounter with a lover she compares with a creature of her dreams. A ghost as “practical” and concrete as any other featured on the album. Talking of ghosts, “Seven Devils” is without a doubt the most haunted track on Ceremonials: built on sober melody, subtle vocal performance and choir arrangement that seems to take the listener to a pagan ritual. It’s not about adoration, though. Florence’s true intention here is to recognize the “seven devils” and be capable to look them in their faces. The track is one of the true proofs of her beautiful talent for vocal innuendo on Ceremonials.
Her performance on “Never Let Me Go” is, on the lack of a better definition, truly impressive. She can sound as she is tenderly whispering in your ear even when her voice reach the heights of heaven on the final verses. “So cold and so sweet” is a line delivered with this very same qualities: a strong yearning, as an icy wind against the listener’s face, even though this wind carries an inebriant scent with it. “Heartlines”, on the other hand, stand out as an anthemic tune with its African-influenced drums and tribal choirs making it a triumph of creativity as well.
“Shake it Out” is the last of three masterpieces on Ceremonials, basically built on resonant percussion and beautifully harmonic organ, added with electronic touches and choir arrangements. Florence’s gigantic voice and unapologetically intense performance turns a kind of cliché lyric about expelling demons and cutting out her own “graceless heart” in a cathartic, infectious anthem of liberation. The bridge to the last chorus, driven by the verses “What the hell/ I’m gonna let it happen to me” is of pure, luxuriant harmonic beauty.
The other two singles out of the album may not be as masterly made, but they’re not incompetent at all. “What The Water Gave Me” is an epically conceived tune, but one made to showcase that The Machine is still the furious band we all met on Lungs, just a more matured one. Chorus is melodically perfect, a quality highlighted by the instrumental downfall applied to it. It’s all about the guitars, the drums, the bass and the harp. “No Light, No Light” is the most schematic track, with its lyrics portraying Florence liberating herself of everything that is so hard to say it out loud to her loved one, and still she finds so easy to “sing it to a crowd”. It’s an interesting premise, and it probably deserved a more careful musical treatment.
All in all, Florence takes a risk on a track that is more poppy-like than anything on Lungs (“Breaking Dawn”) and emulates 1960-1970’s Motown on “Lover to Lover”. Musical catharsis and pop escapism at the same time, Ceremonials is a spirit-lifting piece of music in the likes of the 21st century, proclaiming its own flaws in a clear, loud voice. And it’s pretty beautiful that way.