Review Summary: Don't judge this album by its cover or its singles. Florence Welch has crafted quite the grower; a subtly beautiful piece that opens up a new door for the future of the band.
“At seventeen I started to starve myself.” This is the kind of startling admission that characterizes High as Hope
, a record that shows us Florence Welch unveiled and more vulnerable than ever – belting out her darkest secrets in an echoed, cathedral-sounding room; almost as if to proclaim them to herself aloud for the first time. This is indeed a different kind of album for Welch, one that has resulted in some of her quietest moments that are somehow also her boldest and most confident. It may be more Florence
than it is The Machine
; more ‘Ship to Wreck’ than ‘Shake It Out’… but as she continues to go against the obvious wishes of her fans – a return to Lung
’s electrifying stomp beats or Ceremonials
’ cathartic, demon-cleansing choruses – she gets one thing very right here. High as Hope
is a record with distinct character because Welch finally committed to a side in the battle of thunderous, bombastic pop versus subdued, confessional songwriting. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
was a crossroads album that could not make up its mind and suffered for it. High as Hope
may not be exactly what we were demanding from her, but it is jarringly intimate, and at this point the precise kind of risk that she needed to take.
Whereas previous efforts felt like an imposition of will, Florence and the Machine’s fourth album is the band's most graceful and free-flowing. The songwriting here feels honest and natural, with room for every track to breathe. Throughout High as Hope
, just as much is accomplished through pauses and silence as through rhythm or melody; it’s an artful display of restraint that never quite saw the light of day on cookie-cutter belters like ‘Queen of Peace’ from this album’s predecessor. By contrast, gems like 'Grace' and 'The End of Love' feel liberated and unfurled, uninhibited by typical indie-rock structuring and instead opting for slow, airy introductions and atmospheres that wash over you. There’s a lot of maturation evident in Welch’s craft, and even if there’s no massive single for High as Hope
to hang its hat on, the record more than makes up for it by being a true album, where songs bleed into one another and share meaning rather than clash discordantly.
By toning down the group’s traditional eccentricity, they’ve made it easier to accent their strengths. The synthy organs and distant horns that playfully intertwine behind Welch’s voice on ‘South London Forever’ are stunning; the way she bitingly emphasizes “Jesus Christ” on ‘Big God’ feels all the more venomous; and when things finally ramp up percussively and with sweeping strings on ‘Patricia’, it truly feels like you’ve arrived somewhere within High as Hope
. As with any aesthetic turn towards the minimal, it becomes easier to highlight grander moments when you should so choose – and this record feels like a masterful execution of that. On the desolate closer ‘No Choir’, Welch – in a wispy voice – sums it all up perfectly: “And there would be no grand choirs to sing / No chorus could come in, about two people sitting doing nothing.” The passage seems to indicate that sometimes the most meaning isn’t derived from bombast and grandeur – or life’s biggest moments – but by the gradual pieces that make up the larger puzzle; the days we pass sitting next to each other on the couch that we deem forgettable but that tend to make up the majority of our lives. It’s the perfect metaphor for High as Hope
, an album that dwells quietly in the corner – offering little in the way of big hooks or choruses – but gathers far more meaning out of its humble approach than we ever got from the line “Happiness, hit her like a train on a track.”
Heading into this album, it would have been easy to assume that we’d be in line for ten straightforward, acoustically driven indie-pop songs. High as Hope
is more acoustic than electric, sure – and gone are a lot of the adrenaline-pumping beats that launched the group into stardom initially – but there’s also a tangible shift from the kind of all-too-logical progressions to something organic and completely free. There’s a raw, understated beauty that arrives rather unexpectedly on the heels of the indecisive How Big/Blue/Beautiful
, and yet in perfect time, saving the outfit from becoming a parody of itself with cheap imitations of heyday hits. Here, there’s character that simply can’t be manufactured or extracted from a solitary, out-of-context moment. It’s a gorgeously fluent, continuous experience that needs to be digested as a whole. Welch wrote these songs to put a lot of the issues from her past to rest. Real, poignant emotion can be felt throughout – from the pain in her quivering lower register to the authoritative triumph of the sky-high notes she reaches so effortlessly. The easiest and most likely path to continued success for Welch and company would have been to attempt to re-create the spellbinding magic of Ceremonials
or the anthemic qualities of Lungs
. High as Hope
is neither, and that makes it hands down the most forward-thinking album of Florence and the Machine’s career.