The Number Ones

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The Number Ones Bonus Tracks: Florence & The Machine’s “What The Water Gave Me”

Welcome to the Number Ones Bonus Tracks, the addendum to our regular Number Ones column. We at Stereogum recently wrapped up our fundraising campaign, and we’d like to thank everyone who donated to support this site and keep it going. To those All Access donors who pledged $1,000, I promised that I’d write a Number Ones-style column on a song of their choosing, as long as that song charted on the Billboard Hot 100. We’ll publish those once a week for the next couple of months.

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PEAKED: #91 on September 10, 2011

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Maroon 5 – “Moves Like Jagger” (Feat. Christina Aguilera)

This column is at the request of Stereogum donor Adam from Australia. Here’s what he’s written about his pick:

I don’t usually comment because I’m in the wrong time zone, so I’d like to say hi to everyone now. I got really into music through my Dad, and we go to a lot of gigs together when we can. He takes me to see the bands he listened to when he was growing up — we’ve been fortunate to have seen quite a few acts that have appeared in this column — and I introduce him to the newer artists that I listen to. This was the opening song of one of our favourite gigs, on the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful tour a few years back. Thanks Dad, and thanks to you all for reading.

The music festival is a funny thing. It’s a sealed-off little world, a glass-dome economy of its own. Sometimes, artists with massive singles play festivals, and the crowds completely ignore them. Sometimes, artists with no hits come out and grab crowds by the throat. Some people are just born for festivals. Florence Welch is one of them.

By the time Welch and her band Florence And The Machine achieved mass popularity, the music festival was a hugely important side of the music business — an entire global season where regular tours stopped and all focus shifted to a series of massively produced events where thousands of teenagers would gather to get extremely fucked up and spend hours waiting in line for the phone-charging stations. I know musicians who make livings by organizing their entire years around festival season — or, at least, I did. (It seems vanishingly unlikely that we’ll ever see music-festival season return to what it was even a few years ago.)

The music festival is Florence And The Machine’s natural habitat. Florence Welch and her band have been on the pop charts a few times, but they don’t really make pop music. Instead, they make howling, operatic grand-gesture rock — music driven by thundering drums and swelling strings and Welch’s own bazooka of a voice. Onstage, Welch is a human tornado, bounding and whooping and hair-shaking and exhorting and spinning across stages. At Coachella in 2015, I watched as Welch held down the main-stage spot just before headliner Drake, a man who will eventually appear in The Number Ones, by giving a performance about a thousand times more energetic than anything Drake would ever attempt. That night, Welch leapt into the crowd and broke her foot; for months afterward, she had to sing while sitting down, her leg in a cast. While watching her at Coachella, I couldn’t even tell anything had happened. Welch wouldn’t let a little thing like a broken foot slow her down.

With Florence And The Machine, everything is always big: The hooks, the production, the voice, the persona, the feelings involved. That bigness works like a charm at a festival. On the pop charts, it can struggle. In the late ’00s and early ’10s, when Florence was breaking out, that kind of grandeur didn’t have much to do with the Billboard Hot 100. This was the high Max Martin era, and the mechanistic cleanliness of that approach seemed inherently opposed to Florence’s messily majestic sprawl. But Florence elbowed her way onto those charts a few times anyway — never with a song that sprawls harder than “What The Water Gave Me.”

Florence Welch was born in London, the daughter of a British ad-exec father and an American college-professor mother. Her uncle is John Stockwell, the Christine star and the director of Blue Crush and Kickboxer: Retaliation, two movies I really like. (On the day of Welch’s birth, the #1 song on the Hot 100 was Madonna’s fittingly dramatic “Papa Don’t Preach.”) While Welch was in art school, she released one album with a group called Ashok, and she also started making music with her friend Isabella Summers, who played keyboards and whose nickname was Machine. Florence called herself Robot. Just before their first show, Welch figured out that Florence Robot And Isabella Machine was not a good band name, so she shortened it.

Soon enough, the Machine became a full band, and Welch dropped out of art school to pursue leading that band full-time. (Summers still plays keyboards in the Machine.) Florence And The Machine signed to Island in 2008, and their 2009 debut Lungs was a runaway success in the UK, where it topped the album charts. In the US, the fired-up scream-along “Dog Days Are Over” became a surprise crossover hit, peaking at #21 six months after it soundtracked a Penn Badgley/Jessica Szohr makeout in a Gossip Girl episode. Lungs never made the top 10 of the US album charts, but it stuck around long enough to go double platinum.

“Dog Days Are Over” is still Florence And The Machine’s highest-charting US single. As a guest-singer, though Florence Welch got higher with Calvin Harris’ 2012 single “Sweet Nothing,” which peaked at #10. (“Sweet Nothing” is a 7. Calvin Harris’ highest-charting single is the 2016 Rihanna collab “This Is What You Came For,” which peaked at #3. That one is a 6. As a featured guest, Harris will eventually appear in The Number Ones.)

Point is: Florence And The Machine were immediately a big deal, if a slightly anachronistic one. It probably helped that they came along shortly before Adele, another big-voiced and red-haired London singer, became an absolutely dominant commercial force. (Adele will eventually appear in The Number Ones.) Maybe as a sort of counterpoint to the plastic-hedonistic dance-pop that was dominating the charts at the time, the world just really wanted to hear some white British ladies howling out some full-force emotional exorcisms. Adele and Florence shared collaborators, and Florence’s sophomore album Ceremonials was one of the first things released into a post-21 world. Maybe that’s why it sounds so huge.

Florence And The Machine recorded Ceremonials at Abbey Road, a London studio of some import, with producer Paul Epworth, who had started out recording British pro-indie bands like Bloc Party and Maxïmo Park before working with Florence on Lungs and Adele on 21. (As a producer and songwriter, Epworth will eventually appear in The Number Ones.) I reviewed Ceremonials when it came out, and everything about the album sounds grand and overstuffed and overwhelming, to the point where the album can get a bit numbing when taken in all at once. But at its best and biggest, as on the single “Shake It Out,” it can be magical. (“Shake It Out” peaked at #72.)

“Shake It Out” was the proper lead single from Ceremonials. “What The Water Gave Me,” released before the album was even announced, was more of a teaser, a general roadmap for what the world could expect from the album. It doesn’t have the same kind of anthemic singalong hook as “Shake It Out,” though it does have a big one. The music video, directed by Florence’s art director Tabitha Denholm, is mostly just kinda-boring footage of Florence and her band working in the studio. (I do like the shot, late in the video, where we see that Florence’s typed-out lyric sheet includes the line “be the overflooooooow.” Even Florence’s lyric sheet gets dramatic!) “What The Water Gave Me” didn’t get a big push, but it still did well enough — presumably through iTunes downloads — to land on the Hot 100 for a single week, one of only four Florence & The Machine tracks ever to do so.

“What The Water Gave Me” is prime Florence. Nothing about it is small. The song goes on for nearly six minutes, builds to a screaming gospel-adjacent chorus, and crams in all sorts of art-kid references. Florence named the song after a Frida Kahlo painting, and she built it around the image of Virginia Woolf killing herself by walking into the water with her pockets full of rocks. Welch has said that she intended the song as a sort of metaphor for being swept up in young fame, barely able to control what was raging all around her. The song itself is romantic in every possible respect, right down to the way it abjectly aestheticizes suicide: “Oh, my love, don’t forget me/ While I let the water take me.” That’s a problematic line, but it could also just mean Florence Welch went to see Titanic a bunch of times when she was 11.

Welch co-wrote “What The Water Gave Me” with Francis “Eg” White, a producer who’d worked on Lungs. White had been one of the kids in Brother Beyond, a British boy band who were huge during the one year I lived in London as a kid. (In the US, Brother Beyond’s only charting single was 1990’s “The Girl I Used To Know,” which peaked at #27.) After Brother Beyond, White became a behind-the-scenes type, and he’s one of the many who worked with both Adele and Florence. (White co-wrote Adele’s breakout single, 2007’s “Chasing Pavements,” which peaked at #21.) So Florence had a steadying pop-industry professional working on her on “What The Water Gave Me,” but you can’t really tell. That’s a good thing.

At the time, everyone who reviewed Ceremonials, including me, couldn’t resist comparing Welch to Kate Bush, the previous generation’s queen of witchy British art-pop. But that comparison was never quite right; Bush was never really a maximalist. Instead, Welch’s kind of theatricality owes debts to Arcade Fire and to gospel music, and it has everything to do with her colossal voice. Since then, I’ve realized that she’s less like Kate Bush and more like Bonnie Tyler, if Bonnie Tyler had decided that she wanted to be Stevie Nicks and Peter Gabriel at the same damn time.

That’s the Florence we get on “What Whe Water Gave Me.” Welch starts the song out singing softly over humming organs and dinging harps, but you can tell immediately that she can’t wait to fully let loose, to sing the rafters down. Soon enough, that’s exactly what happens. Guitar tones swirl and build. Drums get louder. Cymbals come crashing in. Before long, Florence and her backing singers — including an already-been-famous Jack Peñate and a not-quite-famous-yet Jessie Ware — are howling at the top of their lungs. As the song reaches full grandeur, Welch is belting out wordless hi-yeeeaaaas, sounding like a tribal Celtic warrior or some shit. I love it.

“What The Water Gave Me” wasn’t really a pop hit, and it didn’t need to be. It was an overwhelming spectacle on its own — the type of thing that sounds best when echoing around a field with thousands of people in it. So the song probably actualized its potential in 2015, when Florence headlined the main stage at Glastonbury, a last-minute fill-in for Foo Fighters. (Dave Grohl had broken his leg onstage, so the band had to back out. Florence must’ve empathized.) That night at Glastonbury, Florence And The Machine opened their set with “What The Water Gave Me,” and it was something to behold.

After “What The Water Gave Me” and “Shake It Out,” Florence And The Machine have only landed one single on the Billboard Hot 100. (“What Kind Of Man,” the lead single from the 2015 follow-up album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, peaked at #88.) Welch is still young, and she’ll get plenty of chances to make more hits, if that’s what she wants to do. But as long as Welch can step onstage in front of vast crowds of people and do that, she won’t need the pop charts.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “What The Water Gave Me” cover that the Cincinnati metalcore band Come The Dawn released in 2014:

Thanks, Adam!

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