The sight of the sky above Los Angeles stole the heart of an English rose and she turned it into a piece of art. In the four years since the release of Ceremonials, the musical grandeur Florence + the Machine mastered has subsided, revealing only this purity, exposed but powerful, in the midst something uncontrollable.
“Don’t touch the sleeping pills; / They mess with my head” opens the album. It is quickly made clear that these upbeat melodies are mostly a fallacy and the dark undertones will prevail. ‘Ship to Wreck’ and ‘Delilah’ blend in this way; behind the piano infusions and liveliness lies a cry for help. “I’m gonna be free and I’m gonna be fine – but, baby, not tonight” projects a familiar sense of hopeless, but the reference to “the different kind of danger” reflects the decaying of a destructive relationship as this album’s basis. In ‘What Kind of Man,’ the darkest tones of the album are exposed, presenting sheer anger through Florence Welch’s astounding vocals and the four chords of the lead guitar. Though nowhere near the album’s best, this song is essential in displaying the depth reached by these songs.
The placing of ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ on the album is interesting in that it contrasts from its predecessor ‘What Kind of Man’ in every conceivable way. Gentle acoustic guitar notes and a beautiful brass section linger and, overall, transform this song into a lovely surprise from the heavily expressive teaser trailer.
Florence + the Machine then try something new. The introduction of ‘Queen of Peace’ could sit proudly on a soundtrack to an old film, but the relentless drums and perfected bassline quickly come to dominate the track; this song could have been played in a high-class cocktail bar in the 70s. The brass section used in ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ returns, posing a slight American feel to the song. This is projected also in ‘Caught,’ a song to capture the last hopeless couple on the dancefloor, and ‘Mother,’ the triumphant final track. ‘Mother’ has an obvious rock and roll influence, whereby Florence’s vocals sit calmly atop distorted guitar solos and the explosive ending that expresses the loss of control mentioned in the album.
There is an influx of ballad-like songs on the album. ‘Various Storms and Saints’ is haunting, led by a single electric guitar melody and that voice, until it fades to end. ‘St Jude’ is immersed in religious imagery and is the most beautiful song on the album. A homage to the patron saint of lost causes, this song whispers loss and depression in a way that exposes it truthfully, not in a romanticised fallacy, like the band has been accused of before with the abusive lyrics of ‘Kiss With A Fist.’ ‘Long & Lost’ follows the infectiously upbeat ‘Delilah’ in, again, a juxtaposing way. The purity of the vocals result in an overall simplicity, with “Is it too late to come on home?” repeated throughout. This song, next to the expressive ‘Caught’, does bring the album to a slight halt. This is quite unfortunate in an otherwise mesmerising album.
Completely unlike the rest of the album, ‘Third Eye’ is a beacon of self-love. It has elements of a guilty pop song, with the feel-good folk guitar and the pre-determined dance moves, but instead is created in the most sincere manner. The lyrics “Hey, look up / You don’t have to be a ghost here amongst the living / You are flesh and blood / And you deserve to be loved” ensure that ‘Third Eye’ stands above but equally aside the darker, more poignant songs, reaffirming that loss cannot reverse self-worth. This album documents the full circle of a destructive relationship, from the sense of loss and anger that remains after its end through to the hints of recovery.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is an art form; all the listener can do is dance unashamedly, thanking Florence + the Machine for creating these songs so fearlessly.
Words by Caitlin O’Connor