Young love is tough. Especially when that love is tumultuous, uncertain, full of rage, vengeful, and insatiable. The push and pull of a relationship gone south, and the glorious highs and lows, are all too familiar. You try to quit that love, but somehow you can’t. It’s an all-too-common scenario. In the depths of despair, even when it seems like all hope is gone, there is a path for redemption. And that’s what Florence Welch, as the frontwoman of Florence + The Machine, blisters through with extraordinary heart on her debut Lungs, which turns 10 today.
After being discovered by Mairead Nash in the bathroom of a London club singing an Etta James song, Welch was asked to perform at her Christmas party and Nash eventually became her manager. Nearly two years later, she’d release Lungs to critical acclaim. Its popularity spread thanks to track placements on a slew of mainstream TV shows like Gossip Girl, Community, and 90210, even receiving the cover treatment on Glee.
Lungs was the beginning of Welch’s now-massive career, one that quickly expanded from club sets to stadium shows. But it was this collection of songs reflecting on a breakup that created a launching pad for a new kind of pop artist to thrive: one who doesn’t shy away from their bold artistry and experimentation.
Welch hit the world like a train on a track. In 2009, when Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen were performing soulful songs about their troubles, the same that littered British tabloids, Welch was a type of Brit-pop star that hadn’t been seen in a long time. Free-spirited, mystical, and gothic, the flame-headed Welch crashed into the music scene and made the harp sound extraordinarily cool.
With the release of Lungs, the London-born singer appeared as the second coming of Stevie Nicks with the theatrical eccentricities of Björk and Kate Bush. In the years since, she’s become known for her legendary stage presence, generally consisting of barefoot dancing and capacious vocals while clad in flowing caftans.
On Lungs, Welch used the turmoil of a breakup to create a brilliant, dramatic opus that runs the emotional gamut from anger, heartbreak, sex, to joy. Built on the backbone of Welch’s sweeping vocals and the warbling of the harp, Lungs is an overpowering amalgamation of the senses. But most importantly, it’s an indelible introduction to an artist whose palette doesn’t stick to the soulfulness of Winehouse, Allen, or even Adele. Instead, Welch revealed herself as a rising star with megaphone vocals that fused punk, blue-eyed soul, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll. The tracks of Lungs read like diary entries — drowning in love and hate, dripping in lust.
The first single Welch ever released was “Kiss With A Fist,” a primal, punk-tinged tale of rough love. The track was the perfect primer for her other work to come. “Blood sticks, sweat drips/ Break the lock if it don’t fit/ A kick in the teeth is good for some/ A kiss with a fist is better than none,” she chants on the track. While on the surface the imagery is violent, the lyrics are metaphors for the chaotic passion Welch experienced with her lover.
On Lungs’ opening track and undying highlight “Dog Days Are Over,” Welch reveals her internal struggle to be calm and content. With the ringing of that harp, she croons, “Leave all your love and your longing behind you/ Can’t carry it with you if you want to survive,” a line that will forever be connected to her as she confronts the double-edged sword of finding love and happiness and waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under her.
Welch further explores this Catch-22 of emotions on “Cosmic Love,” where her rage is as magical as it is destructive. “The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out/ You left me in the dark,” she belts over the shimmering stunner. The haunting “Blinding” picks up where “Cosmic Love” leaves off, as she moves into breakup mode: “No more dreaming like a girl so in love, so in love.” “Hurricane Drunk” further explores the gauzy fever dream that is the realistic aftermath of a breakup — getting ridiculously inebriated and eventually seeing an ex’s new lover.
But when she’s in love (or lust), Welch finds it exhilarating, which she shows on an infectious cover of Candi Staton’s 1986 hit “You Got The Love” and on “Drumming Song.” The electric percussion drives the track as Welch is swallowed by intense attraction: “Louder than sirens, louder than bells/ Sweeter than heaven and hotter than hell.” At the same time, there’s a preciousness to Welch’s music. On “Between Two Lungs,” which she later titled her deluxe edition of the album, she honors the intimacy of a kiss: “The breath that passed from you to me (you to me)/ It flew between us as we slept (as we slept)/ That slipped from your mouth into mine (into mine).”
What Welch proved with Lungs 10 years ago is that love is all-consuming, and can be a battle even with an ethereal lens of poetry, even with flowery language. But with the courage of her own self-exploration, Lungs helped Welch fit into a class of pop star all of her own making: She’s since influenced everyone from Beyoncé on her album 4 to James Bay on his album Pink Lemonade. She’s helped set the framework for artists who fuse weird folk and pop music together like Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish. And her concerts, even now mostly in large venues, still have the intimacy of her early club shows; the softness of her voice still echoes with passion, and she still runs around barefoot when she can. And unlike Kate Bush, who never quite overtook the mainstream with her art pop, Welch has been put at the forefront, proving that pop can be poetic, dramatic, delicate, and passionate. It can also be an intimate exploration all her own.
To commemorate the 10 year anniversary of ‘Lungs,’ Florence + The Machine are releasing an expanded reissue with B-Sides and previously unheard tracks. It’s out 8/16. Pre-order it here, and hear two previously unreleased demos below.