Review Summary: A different kind of big.
Florence + The Machines previous albums always sounded big - it comes with claiming chamber pop territory. Pounding tribal rhythms made their homes on Lungs and more notably Ceremonials, often over a wailing Florence Welch. It was a larger than life, arena-sized sound that was almost too ridiculous to be taken seriously. But she made it work when it shouldn’t have and took that sound to its logical conclusion with Ceremonials. So where do they go next? Well, the harp that fluttered across Ceremonials has been replaced by a brass section. It brings with it a different kind of grand - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a breakup album from the gods, packing a regal wallop to the soul.
Relationships have always been the fuel that fires Florence’s albums, her passion for the dramatic going hand in hand with her arena-sized sound. Here it’s no different, but it’s clear that this is a breakup album of epic proportions. She invokes biblical figures left and right, turning every other track into a melodrama. An anxiety blankets Flo’s ponderings as she deals with her heartbreak, torn between keeping a relationship and leaving it behind completely. There are few lyrical missteps, but the melodies often cover them up. “Third Eye”’s heavy handed message seems a bit uninspired, but the instrumentation makes it a beacon of light amongst all that emotional turmoil. It also follows “Caught”, a plodding soft rock track with no melodical or lyrical highlights - the only track that truly feels weak on the album.
Scattered throughout How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful are a few quieter tracks, featuring some of the most restrained delivery Florence has ever given. The instrumentation is also at its quietest - sparse and minimal, experimental for someone who spent two albums making music that deserved to be backed by an orchestra. It’s then disappointing that I find myself bored to death listening to the droning of “St. Jude”, and finding “Long and Lost” plain unappealing. On the other hand, “Various Storms and Saints” does an excellent job of building up Welch’s swelling vocals, cresting over a ‘hold on to your heart’ spiel. Most other tracks can be described as ‘rollicking’, to varying degrees. Centerpiece “Delilah” is the most jubilant, her vocals soaring over a thunderous beat. Opener “Ship To Wreck” doesn’t emphasize instrumentation, but it all moves at such a lively pace that it’s flat sound can be forgiven. The highlight of the brass section is the title track, of course. How couldn’t it be, bursting out of the back end of the track, taking the reigns and pointing them upwards? The ever rising trumpets invoke the album title, beckoning you to look to the sky.
On first listen, the most apparent thing about How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is how tame it seems compared to previous works. Yet it still manages to sound as loud and large as ever before - overbearingly so at times, but its triumphant sound is just alluring enough to overlook that. The venture into balladry makes for a good counter, even with its mixed results. The outcome is an intense and personal sound that reaches a grandiosity different from the peaks found on previous albums. It’s a grandeur that should be too big for its own good. But Florence has a way of straddling that line, and that line is what defines How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.