Florence + the Machine – ‘Ceremonials’: 8.9/10
It must be hard, even for Florence Welch’s emotionally extravagant life, to fully grasp the startlingly steep up-curve she took on her route to fame, having now spent three years in the spotlight of the charts, fashion magazines, radio interviews; the girl has seen the world and the world has seen the girl, and now she readies her new album ‘Ceremonials’ for worldwide release, hoping to echo the success of ‘Lungs’. Although so long as there’s a space for a gothically-pale siren in the music scene then ‘Ceremonials’ will have no trouble accomplishing that feat. Going by it’s contents, it’s got more than enough stamina to withstand the drastic shift in the market that’s occurred in the intervening three years, playing the death-knell for other accomplished artists attempting a dodgy comeback. What has changed in terms of musicality and progression seem barely noticeable if put down in words, but in context the small progressive impulses make all the difference and establish her as a fully-grown artist and the album as a profoundly mature step-up from ‘Lungs’, because where her raucous début attempted – and succeeded – in taking on a very obviously smorgasbord approach, piling in as many frills as she could get away with and marrying genres together in glitteringly ostentatious ceremonies, it was the more refined, musically, that the sheer weight of her voice was best supported on; songs like ‘Cosmic Love’, ‘Howl’, ‘Dog Days Are Over’ and ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ were the album’s finest moments. Unlikely co-incidentally, three of those tracks were produced by Paul Epworth, now the executive producer of ‘Ceremonials’. His touch is generously spread across it’s contents almost as inescapably as Florence’s voice. Decadent strings, pounding piano, chiming bells and thundering drum loops build the foundations for her bellowing voice.
And there’s no twee little introductory prelude to this marathon album either. You dive straight back into Florence’s eccentric universe via ‘Only If For A Night’; a gloomy traipse through a graveyard’s worth of haunting choirs and chilling harmonies as Florence glances back to her school years (“It was oh-so-strange and so surreal/That a girl could be so practical”). Most admirable about this song is that, despite the heavy melody and images of dark, hooded figures chanting some religious pact, Epworth’s production keeps it from becoming the burden that the song discusses. It’s production is flawless, climaxing into a grandiose finale; typical of Florence, but never a tiresome concept.
Moving through the next couple of tracks, Florence humorously quipped that ‘Shake It Out’ is “like hang-over cure”, as if to literally shake out the headache with a deafening cacophony of sound. ‘What The Water Gave Me’, inspired by Frieda Kahlo follows, featuring yet another stellar use of Welch-Epworth five minute-long crescendo, flitting from one volume and mood to the next, before settling comfortably into a stadium-sized riot.
Naturally with Florence, everything comes pre-packed on a universal scale. Her voice, her music, her image, her lyrics; they’re all big themes colliding together and fusing on impact. Things other artists can cover in one shallow line (mainly because they lack the ability to delve much further), Florence plunges head-first into and produces a whole song from, hence the enormous magnitude of emotions contained within one song. ‘Leave My Body’ is a self-exorcism where Florence declares “I don’t want no future/I don’t need no past/One bright moment/Is all I ask”, before crying out for a numinous release from her body. Often it can be felt that her voice and the scale of what she presents in the form of her music is near-on intoxicating, but it never fails to maintain a level of cinematic captivation: the album as a whole is like a hallucinogenic trip that only those with the correct fortitude can endure. From the intensely-impassioned majority to the much softer, Christmassy chime of ‘Breaking Down’, common themes that would seem otherwise trivial in the vast realms of music such as falling in love aren’t things that can just ‘happen’ to Florence. As she can be heard wailing on the tempestuous ‘Spectrum’ – “Say my name,/And all the colours illuminate;/We are shining/And we’ll never be afraid again” alongside galloping drums and spectral harmonies. It’s a full-blown event, calling to arms all the senses and demanding the listener’s undivided attention and comprehension of her ecstasy, her elation, her torment, her grief. ‘Ceremonials’ is an epic journey that documents not only her happiest moments but, as is customary of Florence, some moments that don’t always conjure up such beautifully chromatic images. With an inventory of sounds and instruments succeeding in depth, innovation and broadness, she proclaims she would reach upwards and tear down the Heavens, along with all her more worldly possessions, and thrust it into the hands of whomsoever can aid her relentless search for the meaning to love on the gloriously angelic penultimate track, ‘All This And Heaven Too’ (“I’ve been scrawling it forever/But it never makes sense to me at all”), she sings with her acrobatic vocals bounding up and down.
Further stand-outs include the electric organ-assisted, moody bluesy-gospel romp of ‘Lover To Lover’ and the gorgeously emotive ‘Never Let Me Go’. The Isabella Summers (‘Cosmic Love’, ‘Dog Days Are Over’) co-written and newly-announced second single ‘No Light, No Light’ dwells deep at the heart of ‘Ceremonials’, it’s vigorous drum introduction leading into a sedate verse, allowing Florence to show off her more tender vocals whilst lamenting a burdensome lover before erupting once more into her stunning contralto with tumultuous verve for the chorus (“You want a revelation/You wanna get it right,/But that’s a conversation/I just can’t have tonight”). In fact, the only mis-step to be found on ‘Ceremonials’ is the slightly colourless ‘Seven Devils’, where her ethereal chanting is so ghostly it suffers as an equally pallorless and intangible entity as that which it imitates.
In a market that’s getting harder and harder to innovate, Florence has stuck to her guns. Some might call it safe, others may go further and even call it cowardly. The truth is in fact that it was both wise and rewarding. The thought of staleness doesn’t once cross your mind when your caught somewhere listening to ‘Ceremonials’. A few dud moments aside, the niche and genre Florence has positioned herself in is very cleverly thought through; a timeless reflection of herself. ‘Ceremonials’ may stem from the same plant as ‘Lungs’, but it’s a more rounded, sophisticated work of art satisfied with the fact it’s a successfully cohesive effort glimmering in the darkness of the Top 40’s declining quality.
Download: The album.
Digital Release: October 31, 2011
Physical Release: October 31, 2011