Review Summary: Now with more brass.
Two and a half albums. That’s about as far as Florence Welch and that big, beautiful (blue? No, red; always red) voice paralyzed me until diminishing returns set in. Granted, this is about an album and a half longer than expected. Ms. Welch’s last effort, 2011’s proudly bombastic Ceremonials
, was everything a sophomore record shouldn’t be: clinging closely to its predecessor’s tailcoats, turning things up louder and more obnoxiously, rehashing lyrical and musical themes and…well, really fu
cking great. What should have been a capitulation to the cracks in her treacly glam-pop instead sounded more fortified than ever, a testament not only to the surprising depth of her formula but also to a set of songwriting skills heads and shoulders above most of her contemporaries. That the press materials for How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
pointed towards a quieter, more subdued Florence and the Machine isn’t so surprising. The fact that they had the balls to make that a virtual bait and switch is the fascinating part. How did George W. so eloquently put it? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice – you can’t get fooled again.
If by understated the marketing reps meant flat, then “Ship To Wreck” is an ideal starting point for How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
. It’s not so much low key as it is downright bland, a soft-rock shimmer that comes as close to “workmanlike” as a song with Welch singing possibly can. It’s catchy and she is in fine, foot-stomping form, but there’s little that really seizes you by the throat. That comes quick enough, though. First single “What Kind of Man” is a stereotypically huge Florence and the Machine anthem, and, sure, the histrionics, Ride-of-the-Valkyries backing chorus, and full orchestral accompaniment is, at this point, a bit predictable. That raucous, downright rocking
guitar riff, though, gives the song the kind of backing punch that Florence needs to keep raising the stakes. “What Kind of Man” is borderline spartan compared to the title track, which reveals the press for this album as the joke it is. Replete with a busy brass section, strings, a goddamn dulcimer – “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” would be laughably excessive if it wasn’t so gorgeous, a slow burning, stately bit of chamber-pop. That’s her beauty: that a song can end with a minute and a half outro of gently swelling horns and conjure the mood of a Disney symphony yet still sound like, yes, that’s exactly how it needed to go.
Although the softer moments here are only soft in comparison to the dazzling cacophony that usually accompanies her songs, Welch does seem more confident letting her pipes do the heavy lifting. “Various Storms & Saints” gets busier the more you listen to it, but the focus remains on Welch’s naked emotion, her voice running through delicate trills and more throaty proclamations with ease. Even better – and perhaps more true to the record’s original intent – is “Long & Lost,” which keeps Welch firmly in the forefront behind a ghostly array of backing voices and a slow, soulful guitar line. As powerful and complicated as Welch’s voice can be, however, the strength of the song still largely determines her successes here. In that respect, the painfully trite “St. Jude” wastes another stellar performance by Welch, its hackneyed lyrics and melodramatic repetition of its title a stone dragging her down. The album’s sequencing doesn’t do it any favors, either. After the propulsive, rollicking rush of “Delilah” closes a blast of a first half, the relatively more sedate second half struggles to gain traction, whether that’s through the fault of dragging, hazy midtempo dredge like “Caught,” or misfires like “Third Eye,” a song that screams to be noticed as much as Welch’s atypically yelping delivery demands, but doesn’t do much of anything to grab attention.
If it sounds like I’m being unduly harsh, I am. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
is the furthest thing from a bad record – in the context of its marketplace, Florence and the Machine still cast a shadow that swallows up even the most talented impersonators. That titanic presence, though, appears to be sucking up all the available air. If this is meant to be a transitional record – and, despite the halfhearted attempt to tone the theatrics down a notch, it certainly appears to be – it’s an album that nonetheless ends with a promising look ahead. “Mother” at first appears to be suffering from a case of Welch attempting to squeeze everything she missed out on in one last track, but its slow unfurling is remarkable not for its eventual ferocity, but for the path it takes to get there; that roiling guitar that surfaces during that last chorus, angry and buzzing, is more Jesus and Mary Chain than Kate Bush. As gaudy as Florence and the Machine can get, the hypnotic heights the group reaches as “Mother” soars through that cloud of distortion is why we listen to them in the first place. As long as the band can tap into that primal, cathartic nerve, I suppose I don’t really care how loud or soft they get. Turn that voice to 11.