Premature Evaluation: Florence + The Machine How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Florence Welch does not half-step. I mean that literally: At Coachella, Welch leapt from the stage and broke her foot, and watching her, I had no idea that anything was wrong. She’d have to spend the next few months in a cast, performing while sitting down. But out there in the crowd, I don’t even remember seeing Welch limp or strain. She was in big, theatrical entertainer mode during that whole set: Careening across the stage and out along the barricade, asking everyone in the crowd to remove an item of clothing before peeling her own shirt off, admonishing tens of thousands of zooted teenagers to stop worrying about consequences and live in the moment. It was a fun-as-hell performance, and she wasn’t going to let a small matter like a broken foot fuck up her flow. But Welch doesn’t half-step figuratively, either. Her wide-open flamethrower of a voice is the single greatest selling point of Florence + The Machine, the band that’s really just Welch’s glorified solo project. Welch trades in grand gestures: Operatic choruses, orchestral swells, grand glory notes that would bring tears to the eyes of televised-singing-competition judges. In a musical climate where chilly, insinuating minimalism is the reigning signifier of cool, it’s an absolute treat to hear someone singing every song like she’s trying to soundtrack the emotional climax of a sports movie. On How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the new Florence + The Machine album, Welch goes for soaring majesty throughout, and it’s a glorious thing to behold.
It’s weird to even type this, but How Big represents a bit of a dialing-back move for Welch, even as it uncorks more emotional fire than just about anything else on the festival-popscape. It would’ve been basically impossible to go bigger than 2011’s Ceremonials, the last Florence album. That one blew everything out to absurd degrees: White-knuckle roller-coaster choruses, swooping drama, death serving as a lyrical metaphor for just about everything. It didn’t matter what volume you had Ceremonials set to; it always sounded loud. In 12 songs and 55 minutes, there wasn’t a single catch-your-breath moment. The singles on Ceremonials were absolute killers, and there were a lot of them: “Shake It Out,” “No Light, No Light,” “Spectrum (Say My Name).” But the album was best-enjoyed in small doses; when you played the whole thing through, it could feel overwhelming.
How Big, by contrast, is contained and controlled. It’s relatively digestible — 11 songs in a manageable 49 minutes. And Welch gives her songs room to breath, letting her band vamp bluesily sometimes rather than raging to another climax, or taking her time to build to the massive, cathartic choruses. The songs on the album are big, but there aren’t any monsters on the level of “Shake It Out.” And Welch isn’t singing about death. She’s singing about smaller, more human feelings, about regretting fuckups or trying to take back control of her life after partying too hard for too long.
Reviewing Ceremonials nearly four years ago, I wrote that Welch was gunning for the British art-pop queen title once held by Kate Bush. I was exactly wrong. Upon further reflection, Welch has more in common with a big-voiced, big-haired ’80s balladeer like Bonnie Tyler or Laura Branigan. And in her ability to make weird, personal songs resonate as sweeping, big-tent pop bangers, Welch reminds me, more than anyone else, of mid-’80s Peter Gabriel. Like Gabriel, Welch is an unlikely, effective white-soul belter. Like Gabriel, she fills up the frame, cramming every song with sonic details. She might not deal with brittle funk or Afropop flourishes, but her whooping gospel-powered backing singers and rich guitar tones and exultant horn-stabs fill that space beautifully. And like Gabriel, Welch is a communicator, someone who projects feelings so powerfully that you feel them yourself. Rest assured: The next time you hopelessly fuck up a relationship, you can always show up outside someone’s window in the rain, holding an iPhone speaker above your head and blasting “Ship To Wreck.” And in the current small-scale, niche-driven pop music landscape, she’s one of the few people even trying to make songs that can serve that function. Bless her for that.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is out 6/2 on Republic.