In Brief: A powerful set of pipes plus a talent for bringing together the best parts of indie rock, baroque pop, and soul music makes this a formidable set of songs. It’s only when Florence & Co. put the brakes on that the results start to feel a bit more generic, but even then, her vocal performance is sublime enough to get me through to the good stuff on the other side. (Interestingly, the deluxe edition’s bonus tracks offer a glimpse at stronger material that didn’t make the cut for whatever reason.)
Sometimes I want to kick myself when I give an artist the brush-off the first or second time I’m exposed to their music, only to realize later on that they were right up my alley. Usually this happens because of a sub-par performance on a late night show, or a radio single that doesn’t really reflect the depth of their talent. I didn’t have either excuse in the case of Florence + the Machine. The British indie rock outfit had appeared multiple times on Saturday Night Live over the years, and maybe the songs they chose to highlight from their earlier albums didn’t really grab me, but I honestly can’t say why I didn’t take notice when they trotted out two of the most awesomely energetic and instantly addictive songs from their then-upcoming album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful in their most recent appearance. The band reprised their performance of the album’s second single, “Ship to Wreck”, on The Tonight Show a few weeks later, and suddenly I was like, “This song is AMAZING!” and I had to go hit up Spotify and see what else the band had to offer. I’ve had that reaction to bands before, where I’ve become instantly obsessed with a single, but in their case it’s not just a fluke. Florence has some powerful pipes, and her band certainly brings the best of multiple worlds together in terms of their chosen musical style, bringing a touch of class and authority to her sometimes feisty and sometimes mildly deranged lyrics by way of muscular guitar riffs and breathtaking orchestral vamps. It might be that perceived “fesitiness” that kept me at a distance at first, as it often does with artists whose eccentricity seems to make an impression earlier than their musical talent does. I had this irrational fear of getting more weirdness than I bargained for. Somewhat hypocritical of me, given how I’ve grown to love artists like Björk and Regina Spektor over the years, but well, that’s what I thought I was working with.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful certainly seems to one of those records that wants to bring an artists’ talent in front of a wider audience. It seems to achieve that careful balance between sounding just mainstream enough for a few well-chosen singles to really take hold, and still allowing the artist to let their hair down and march to the beat of their own drummer. It’s easy to be drawn in by the first four songs on this record, all of which are powerful and memorable in different ways – probably one of the best album openings on any record released thus far this year. Farther in, of course a band centered around such a powerful vocalist is eventually going to strip back the wall of sound and show us what she can do with sparser surroundings. That’s the only point where How Big is a little less successful, and it’s not due to any failing on the part of Florence’s vocals. The arrangements and production in several of those cases just don’t give the rest of her band as much to do, and they drift uncomfortably close to mid-90s pop album filler (you know, during the whole Lilith Fair era) than I would like them to. I can’t pinpoint a single “bad” song; there are just a few where I can tell Florence is trying to wring more action and emotion out of the lyrics and melody than they were really written to contain. It’s not a universal problem with her slower songs, but it bogs down enough of them that it can make the album’s back half a bit of a letdown compared to how huge of a start it gets off to. Florence, of course, bears some responsibility in that department since she’s also the primary songwriter, along with her partner in crime Isabella Summers who is the only other permanent member of the band. But for the most part, these ladies and the musicians they’ve assembled around them have crafted an intoxicating record that I find myself coming back to again and again, almost to the point of obsession. There’s just something about her ability to raise the rafters when singing about how a lover has scorned her, or her own self-destructive behaviors, or how she’s finding some sense of peace despite all that due to how vast and wondrous the world around her can sometimes be, that I find incredibly relateable… which sort of makes me wonder if I should get my head checked, actually. Regardless, most of this record is a total blast.
1. Ship to Wreck
This is the song that begun the obsession, and between playing the album repeatedly in the car and having the song on a few playlists as well, I’ve probably run the risk of making my wife sick of it, but I can’t help it. The whole thing is extremely catchy, top to bottom, from the chiming, descending keyboard melody that serves as its main hook to the powerful vibrato Florence exhibits on an otherwise simple chorus. Never have two words been as dangerously memorable as the way she belts out “To wreeeeeeeeeeeeeck!” (Originally, I thought she was singing “Tourette’s”… and well, see the bottom of this review for a mildly politically incorrect song parody that this inspired.) While this is an upbeat and extremely danceable little number, its lyrics are rather sobering in terms of how honestly Florence tackles her apparent ability to destroy anything good she’s got going in her personal life. Despite her producer’s mandate that she find something other than nautical themes to write about, she’s loaded this one down with oceanic imagery, describing her relationships as ships she builds only to wreck them (hence the title), and the hallucinations of things like sharks swimming in her bed that she gets after going on a wicked bender. You have to watch the video, where the fiery redhead gets into a catfight with her own doppleganger, to get the full effect of the craziness here. It’s scary awesome.
2. What Kind of Man
I was skeptical about the rather subdued opening of this song, especially since it immediately follows such a perfect gem of a pop song, but give it a few seconds for the opening verse to unfold into the jagged guitar riffs and blurting horns that come stomping in to demand your attention. This is Florence’s version of singing the blues, I think – not that the musical style is specifically bluesy, but her sadness and rage and apparent fervor for a man she’s entangled in a love-hate relationship with certainly compels her vocal performance toward the wilder, more improvisational end of the spectrum. It’s amazing how well the song holds together, what with all of her mildly deranged warbling, but once again, you can credit a catchy chorus (this time a much rockier and more soulful one) for pulling it all together. Since this enigma of a man has such a strong effect on her, what with the ravishing affection he gives her one minute and the cruel distance he seems to place between them the next, you’d expect a manic and slightly tortured and altogether captivating performance from everyone involved, and that’s what we get here for sure.
3. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
The title track eases up on the the throttle just a tad… it’s still got a brisk pace to it, but it’s not as in-your-face as the first two tracks… at least, not at first. The baroque pop side of the Machine certainly takes over here, with the horns and the rhythm section creasting several times and then easing up again as the song flows from verse to chorus and back. It’s like driving a scenic road that meanders over several hills before arriving at a gorgeous, shining city. Florence’s description of earth and sky here is a lovely one, awaiting the arrival of a man who will fall like a shooting star from space, and there’s a gorgeous “open-ness” to the song that fits the huge, magnificent sky that will be the backdrop for his arrival. “Every city was a gift”, she croons, “and every skyline was like a kiss upon the lips”. Given that she opens with the uneasy balance of fame and spirituality with the line “Between the crucifix and the Hollywood sign, we decided to get hurt”, it’s interesting that the song still views the city (presumably Los Angeles) with such apparent optimism, but then, maybe I’m just so captivated by the gorgeous crescendo of horns and flutes that rises up and completely swallows the song in its final minutes that it overwhelms whatever pain or regret she may have expressed earlier on.
4. Queen of Peace
This track might be the best example of Florence and company’s uncanny ability to be stately and yet visceral at the same time. I credit the horn section once again – as it opens the song, I feel like I’m being ushered into a royal court somewhere, but then the drums begin stomping and the tambourine rattles away, and the whole band is pretty much taking this thing to church. Florence sings a tale of a king and queen who won a war, but lost their son in the final battle, which drives the king mad and puts the queen in a difficult position of having to keep a brave face on while she tries to keep the broken remnants of their kingdom together. You really feel the anguish and the intensity when she lets loose with a chorus that might just be the most cathartic one on the entire album to sing along to: “Suddenly I’m overcome/Dissolving like the setting sun/Like a boat into oblivion/’Cause you’re driving me away!” Amazing stuff. Just hearing this song out of context, I’d assume it was some sort of R&B or Gospel group – not that I know a whole lot about those genres, but I do appreciate the rich flavor that they add to the Machine’s repertoire. This one’s in serious competition with “Ship to Wreck” in my personal “favorite song” department, and given how much I gushed about the former, that’s saying an awful lot.
5. Various Storms & Saints
The front half of the album has been quite a rhythmic workout so far, and I suppose I couldn’t expect the energy level of that first batch of songs to remain all the way through the album. It’s an appropriate time for a comedown, I guess. Florence goes the dark and brooding route, taking the solo spotlight with just an electric guitar and a loose sketch of a chord progression, which works well for a song that starts as a quiet lament and builds up to a, eerie full-throated chorus of Florences begging for someone to be set free from the stranglehold that a lack of forgiveness puts on her relationship with this person. While not as much stands out to me musically on this one, the lyrics are some of the most poetic that the album has to offer, and her vocal performance is pretty stellar.
One of Isabella Summers’ most interesting co-writes is this song, which puts a spin on the old Samson & Delilah tale by casting Florence in the role of Samson. I’m not really sure who Delilah is in this case… perhaps some disembodied form of temptation that prompts her to keep “pulling pillars down” in the same sense as the ships she builds and then keeps wrecking. This tune knows how to bring the drama, opening with these stark but declarative piano chords, sketching out only the bare bones of the melody and letting the vocals fill the space in between (which take a bit of a call-and-response form, again a possible bit of Gospel influence), and making us wait for it all the way through the first chorus, until the drums and handclaps finally kick in with a groove that is downright spiritual. “It’s a different kind of danger”, she sings defiantly in that chorus. And it makes me think of the early days of rock music, when people thought the music was dangerous even though of course it wasn’t, because there was that electric sort of mood to it, like anything could happen. Of course I’m loving this. It’s not a particularly guitar-heavy song, but attitude-wise, it might be the most rock-n-roll of all the songs on the album.
7. Long & Lost
Unfortunately, after building the momentum back up with an amazing song, the band very suddenly squanders it on two maddeningly average tracks. I suppose there was an attempt to see what Florence could do with more relaxed or minimal arrangements, and to not have everything always need to be so big and confrontational, but this song just sort of drifts on by with its vague echoes of guitar licks that might be a bit bluesy if they were allowed to do anything but quietly mope, and not a whole lot else going on in the musicianship or production department that really stands out to me. It’s a bit like stumbling around with the lights off, and Florence’s voice is a mere whisper for most of it, slipping into some lovely falsetto near the end, but never really even making a bump on the intensity scale. It’s a shame, because lyrically, she seems to have taken stock of the damage she’s done and the bridges she’s burned, so it’s a bit of a thematic turning point that sets us up for the more redemptive songs in the album’s back half. It just doesn’t do much to make me notice it.
This is the song that gives me the “Lilith Fair” vibe, and not in the adventurous sense of female artists breaking boundaries, but in the more innocuous sense of what you ended up hearing on the radio from the more soft-spoken artists of that ilk during the mid-to-late 90s. Just about everything – the laid-back beat, the softly cooing background vocals, the melody with all of its quirks and edges sanded off – feels like this could have been a filler track from the likes of Shawn Colvin or Sarah McLachlan or Paula Cole back in the day. I hate to dog on Florence for showing some restraint when the entire point of the song is that she’s showing some restraint in her personal life, trying to resist calling up and ex and reigniting the old flame and going through all the trouble that would entail. It’s a good jumping-off point for a better song that just plain didn’t get written here. Though her vocals are decidedly more Florence-y than they were in the previous song, the lyrics just don’t give her flattering words with which to show off her brassy voice and her trademark vibrato. “Caught” and “taught” aren’t the kind of words that sound good when you hold the lone syllable within each for several seconds, and that’s pretty much all the chorus has going for it hook-wise.
9. Third Eye
“Oo-wah, oo-wah, that original lifeline.” OK, that’s a goofy-as-hell way to open a song, and this is about the only point on the album where I’d dare to call Florence and co. “quirky” – normally her songs have enough gravity to them that they escape that label. I’m not sure if she’s dead serious or lighthearted here, but the mood is definitely a lot brighter than pretty much everything else on the album, as she sings a very encouraging song about learning to love and forgive yourself, and… honestly, a lot of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that I don’t pretend to understand. (Missed opportunity for a My Morning Jacket collaboration, perhaps? The lyrics sound right up their alley.) Her signature yelp makes her shouted exhortations work for me even if a lot of the individual lyrics don’t, and the pounding piano and vaguely tropical-sounding backing vocals are charming in their own weird way. It’s not the best example of an up-tempo song that I’d pull from this album, but it’s a needed bright spot amidst moodier songs, and it’s another fun one to sing along to.
10. St. Jude
The last downbeat track on the album fares a little better than the others, again largely due to the instrumentation. There’s a bit of programming and looping going on here, but not enough to overwhelm the song – the vocals are probably the key instrument here, along with the oboe or English horn or whatever that lovely woodwind instrument is that adds a ton of class to an already contemplative and reverent song. This is her ode to “the patron saint of the lost causes”, and I have to say that her delivery of that line is eerily similar to Anberlin‘s in their epic album closer “Fin”, even though I’d never think of a reason to even remotely compare the two artists. She’s coming to terms with the notion that “Maybe I’m more comfortable in chaos”, identifying more with the misfits than the good little schoolgirls in the universe, and finding kinship in a saint who seems to stir up just as many storms as the ones she calms down. (Yes, St. Jude is a woman here. Artistic license and all.) Like the other slow songs on this album, it’s not a terribly climactic one, but it’s probably the best example of Florence in “calm mode” out of anything on the record.
I love that the band chose to go big for the finale. You can tell they’re going for the slow simmer at the beginning of the song – the cool, 60s era keyboards and percussion just ooze coolness, and I love how Florence steadily guides this song from its initially mellow groove to a point of controlled chaos over nearly six minutes. The song is essentially a prayer, though in keeping with the female saints and heroines of her earlier stories, the prayer is to a Mother instead of a Father – possibly Mother Earth, since she wants to be made a big tall tree, a bird of prey, anything that makes her one with the creation that she loves and better able to reflect its beauty. This may sound a bit hippy-dippy when I put it in writing, but it’s pretty cool when you’re actually listening to the song – if not for the modern production values making things a little louder and clearer than they probably would have been back then, it would once again be easy to believe I’d been transported several decades back in time, and I love it when an artist can pull that off so effectively. My only complaint is that right when the song really needs its maximum amount of bite, the electric guitar ends up being so fuzzy and distorted that it sounds more like a weird wave of electronic sound than it probably should for the amount of energy that the song around it calls for. It’s an epic way to end the album despite that, so that’s a really a minor issue. I was expecting a mellow ending given how the last half of it tapped on the brakes so much, so this was a really pleasant surprise.
If you have the deluxe edition, then of course it doesn’t end there. While I won’t go into great detail about the five extra tracks on this version, I can definitely say that the two fully-formed recordings, “Hiding” and “Make Up Your Mind” are definitely worth a listen – both very up-tempo, with the former having more of a noticeable 80s bent to it that isn’t completely out of step with the rest of the album, but that would have added an extra bit of flavor instead of one of those two slow songs I complained about in slots seven and eight. The latter is a bit more of an aggressive rocker, not quite as much as “What Kind of Man”, but it’s in that same vein, using the grim imagery of an executioner and a guillotine as a metaphor for a relationship that needs to either go somewhere or be put out of its misery.
What’s left are three demos – first, a non-album track called “Which Witch”, which (sorry) is pretty darn good if you can look past the ridiculous title that unfortunately brings to mind a local build-your-own-sandwich joint. It’s a remnant from a lost thematic element that was originally the driving force of the album, casting Florence as a witch on trial in an intolerant society or something like that, and bits and pieces of it may still crop up in the other songs if you listen close enough, I guess. At times it’s a bit too obsessed with its own weird quirks and shouted refrains to have as strongly defined of a melody as the songs preceding it, but it’s definitely got some bite to it and it’s worth a listen. I can’t say the same for the demo versions of “Third Eye” and the title track that close out the deluxe edition – both betray a point in the process when there was still clearly a lot of fine-tuning left to be done. I listened to them once and I can’t think of a reason I’d ever want to again, compared to the finished versions. Still, 3 out of 5 is pretty darn good odds as bonus tracks go.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Ship to Wreck $2
What Kind of Man $1.75
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful $1.75
Queen of Peace $2
Various Storms & Saints $1
Long & Lost $.50
Third Eye $1.25
St. Jude $1
Florence Welch: Lead vocals, percussion
Isabella Summers: Keyboards, backing vocals
Robert Ackroyd: Lead guitar
Christopher Lloyd Hayden: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Tom Monger: Harp, xylophone, bass guitar
Mark Saunders: Bass guitar, backing vocals, percussion
Rusty Bradshaw: Keyboards, rhythm guitar, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
And now, as promised, the ill-advised song parody:
Don’t touch the silverware, it’s all in a row
I turn the knob three times before I open the door
And I’ve washed my hands today, twenty times at least
Skin on my hands is rubbed raw, but at least it’s clean
And oh, I’ve got OCD, that’s what my doctor said
When he asked to run a lab test on me, I shook my head
And oh, I meant to say no, but I nodded yes
Can’t control this twitch
Now ain’t that a bitch
It’s a nervous tic
Tourette’s! Tourette’s! Tourette’s!
Doctor says I’ve got Tourette’s!
What’s with the stunned face? Are you in shock?
Did you not enjoy my crash course in how sailors talk?
Doc calls it coprolalia, it means talking crap
My folks think I got this way from listening to rap
And oh, please don’t remind me of filthy things I’ve said
I can’t help but anger folks around me, to them I’m dead
And oh, I’m sober, but I sound inebriated
Do I swear too much?
Do I make you blush?
I can’t help but cuss
Tourette’s! Tourette’s! Tourette’s!
I keep talkin’ shit
And so what? If you don’t like it, get lost
If you’re so offended, get tossed
I’ll make some new friends at last!
‘Cause I’m in good company, I’m up there with the best
Like Alanis and Sam Effing Jackson… at least I suspect
I’ll cook with Gordon Ramsay, and joke with Lewis Black
Listen to Mozart
He could be quite harsh
Wrote “Leck mich im Arsch”
Tourette’s! Tourette’s! Tourette’s!
Go and look that up
Tourette’s! Tourette’s! Tourette’s!
It means “Lick my butt”