In Brief: The stripped down approach and more starkly personal lyrics are a strong move… in theory. But this just plain doesn’t work for a powerhouse vocalist and an eccentrically creative songwriter of Florence’s caliber. The production mushes everything together whenever the music tries to pick up a little steam. The songs have an irritating habit of cutting off before they really feel like they should end. And whatever’s left of “The Machine” feels like it’s too timid to assert itself the way it used to.
Let’s be honest – there was a pretty narrow window of time in which I was gonna become a Florence + The Machine fan. I had plenty of opportunities to be exposed to their music, from their debut Lungs in 2009 up until I finally took the bait when their third album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful dropped in 2015. A few Saturday Night Live appearances and even the use of their song “Kiss with a Fist” in a kick-ass fight scene from one of my all-time favorite Community episodes didn’t cause them to register in my brain the first few times around as something I might like to hear more of. I think for a while there, I was just stubborn about not liking bands with overly eccentric singers who did the melisma thing all over the place. Maybe it sounded faux-soulful to me in a way that communicated the singer’s image and ability to show off were more important than the musicianship or the songcraft? Regardless, I had the band pegged all wrong, as I would eventually discover when I dug into How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. That album easily lived up to its name, balancing dramatic, eccentric indie rock with bits of soul and Gospel tropes, lots of strings and horns and piano, and some incredibly sharp pop sensibilities. A few slower tracks may have leaned toward the bland side of things, perhaps – which I would realize wasn’t a trap the band often fell into as I reached backward in time to discover 2011’s Ceremonials and the aforementioned Lungs. But all three of those records were on fire, for the most part. I was stoked to hear what the band would come up with next.
Florence + The Machine’s fourth album, High as Hope, is unfortunately the kind of difficult follow-up album that I can almost guarantee wouldn’t have gotten me into the band. It’s stilted. It’s messy in a way that doesn’t seem to reveal any gleeful abandon in the recording process. It feels labored and pretentious on numerous occasions. It’s a short album, but listening to it straight through gives it the illusion of being excruciatingly long. There’s a lot of tunefulness to some of its melodies, and some interesting musical embellishments here and there, but it’s the first Florence + The Machine record where I feel like The Machine must have taken a holiday. Sure, the backing musicians are still present in one form or another, but this new batch of 10 songs tends to highlight Florence and only Florence so much of the time that it might as well be a solo record. Don’t get me wrong – now that I’ve come to respect what Florence Welch brings to the table as a vocalist and as a songwriter, I can’t say that she’s in anything but top form here. She bares her soul on a few of these tracks in astonishing ways. But nearly everyone else involved in the process seems to let her down. It’s like going to the trouble to take a photo of an attractive model in front of a meticulously arranged backdrop, and then blurring out the backdrop and muting the colors to greyscale in post. How is that flattering? Song after song on this record feels like it’s struggling to get up to speed, and when it begins to approach something resembling a climax, it’s over in mere seconds. (Feel free to manipulate that sentence to make cheap “sounds like your love life!” jokes if you must. I’ll admit I walked right into that one.)
As I delve into the lyrics on this record, I’m tempted to think that perhaps this should have been a Florence Welch solo project. It’s pretty clearly her most personal album thus far. Which is not to say she’s hidden her true personality or struggles from us in the past – I just think there was a fair amount of high-fantasy role-playing to balance out the real-life trials and tragedies in a lot of her previous work, where the Gospel fervor might pair nicely with some eerily religious metaphors, or she’d dive straight into the occult for symbolic inspiration or something like that. She’s always been battling her demons in one form or another, with her pen as her most trusted weapon. High as Hope feels like it sheds a lot of the allegory, which is not to say it’s a lyrically unimaginative record, per se. It just seems more confessional and less reliant on fantastical narrative devices to get to the root of her fears and dreams and sorrows. Maybe take away the expectation of a rousing, full-band performance with monster chorus hooks and wailing backing vocals aplenty, lead us to instead anticipate an intimate evening with a solo performer, and this album wouldn’t be nearly so disappointing. It would still take a lot of work to strip away the extraneous, unhelpful elements that try to make a number of these songs feel bigger than they are, in order to get to the naked artistry on display beneath, but at least that would stand apart from her previous work in a logical way. As a project by a woman and her band, High as Hope is downright infuriating. It gives me an almost comical image of the singer as a narcissistic diva, angrily snapping at any musician who dares to add enough flair to a song that they might steal the spotlight for a few seconds. That’s not at all the kind of personality I imagine Florence Welch to have, but it’s notable that she self-produced this record (with an assist from co-producer Emile Haynie) – before I knew that, it honestly sounded to me like it had been produced by someone unfamiliar with the band’s dynamic, who was determined to focus solely on the vocalist while everyone else was expected to rigidly stay in their lane. This stands in pretty sharp contrast to some of the arrangements on past records, which could feel like unstoppable freight trains once they picked up momentum. Several tracks here are incredibly slow to build momentum, and then they don’t stick with it for very long, making me wonder why the rest of the band even bothered showing up in a few cases. (It’s also worth noting that there’s been some turnover in the band between records – they’ve dropped three members, including their rhythm section, and gained four – possibly meaning that the new folks didn’t have as much to contribute creatively.) I’m willing to take it on faith that this record was, in fact, the result of a collaborative process between Florence and her band, just as their other albums are, but if anyone else had any really strong ideas to contribute, for the most part I’m just not hearing it.
So yeah, what you’ve got here is a stubborn misfire of an album that clearly wants to be a gut-wrenching rollercoaster of an album to listen to, but that just can’t get itself there in terms of its dramatic energy most of the time. It’s not a bad album, but when I have to struggle to find the good spots in a number of songs, and they don’t seem to last long enough to elevate the full songs around them to a consistently enjoyable level, we’ve got some serious problems here that lead me to wonder if this band will ever be the same again. I sure hope High as Hope is just a phase they’re gonna come down from in three or four years when it comes time to make album #5.
So look, I get that this is one of those album openings that is meant to thwart your expectations and intrigue you as to what exactly the heck is going on. I’m normally drawn in by those. But the still, sluggish beginning of this song stands in such sharp contrast to how all of Florence’s other albums have opened, that I have to admit I have a really hard time with it. Her voice just hangs out there in the cold, all tired and bare, as she recovers from what I’m assuming was a particularly draining performance in a Chicago hotel room. Some piano shows up before too long to give it the barest of rhythmic anchors, and eventually it all congeals into something resembling a chorus, with the background vocals building behind her as she repeatedly pleads, “Hold on to each other”. Who needs to hold on to each other, and why this is important, is more hinted at than it’s actually specified – a closer examination of the lyrics might reveal that this song had begun its life in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in June of 2016, which would have been as Florence was touring her last album. There’s potential for a strong humanitarian message here when she refers to “Those heavy days in June when love became an act of defiance”, but there’s really no follow-through in the rest of the song. Most of the details here are vague enough that the song could just as easily be about her losing – or fighting to avoid losing – someone who was close to her. The song’s climax, which should be a big, exciting moment, but which really just feels cluttered and claustrophobic as all of the drums and strings and voices are blaring at once, finds her wailing, “You’re so high, you’re so high, you have to be an angel”, which feels a bit abrupt, disconnected from the rest of the song, and as I’ll point out regarding several of the big refrains on this album, somewhat unearned. This is a bit of a stillborn song that tries to ramp up the excitement too late in the game for me to really care. And it cuts off suddenly just when it’s finally getting there – this admittedly makes for a solid transition into the next track, but honestly, this is not an ending. It comes at the expense of this song having a chance to redeem itself after getting off to such an awkward start.
It took me several listens to realize it, but this song – the first conventional single released from the album – really hits the sweet spot between the lavish instrumentation we’ve come to expect from the band, the more economical, stripped-down approach taken on this new album, the performance-oriented vocal embellishments Florence puts on pretty much everything she does, and the very down-to-earth, naked honesty in her lyrics. Just as soon as you’re disarmed by the plucking harp and the sweet “Oohs” that open the song, she hits you with one of her most startling lyrics to date: “At seventeen, I started to starve myself/I thought that love was a kind of emptiness.” The song goes on to briefly, but unflinchingly describe periods of her life where she chased some ideal in vain that she thought would fill her up, whether it be fitting into someone else’s ideal of what her body should look like, or fashion, or drugs, or the validation she gets from performing for a crowd. She’s honest that she doesn’t know the answer to what will ultimately fill her up and give her lasting satisfaction, but she knows now that these things aren’t enough and that the trial-and-error process left her damaged but wiser in the end. Despite the fact that I’m 100% rooting for her in terms of what she’s writing about, and this song seems to be headed in the right direction in terms of the melody, the strong beat, the up-tempo instrumentation and the sheer vocal fervor making it accessible without dumbing down the impact of the lyrics, I don’t think it lands on a strong enough chorus to truly stick in my head – both the lead and backing vocals are just repeating “We all have a hunger” over and over – a universally true statement, but one that could benefit from a bit of call-and-response where either the lead or the BGV’s could be spending their time expanding on this idea a little more. The band also made the odd decision to quite suddenly cap off the song at its bridge. It’s an extension of how the first chorus leads back into the second verse with the line “You make a fool of death with your beauty, and for a moment…” The second time around, she tacks on “I forget not to worry”, and it sort of trails off, like it’s one of those quiet moments where you expect a momentary break in the action to serve as the calm before the storm. The storm, in fact, never returns. Her forgetting not to worry also means she forgets to finish the song. THIS IS NOT AN ENDING.
3. South London Forever
There are about three separate song ideas fighting for dominance in this odd little anthem, which seems at first to simply be about warm nostalgia for Florence’s college days, many of which were apparently spent in a drunken and/or high stupor, stumbling down various backalleys as Florence and her friends tried to make their way home from various pubs, possibly getting into a few brawls and/or sloppy makeout sessions along the way. It has a certain charm when one takes this idea at face value, even though I don’t really thinks this fits all that well with the rather mellow keyboards that float throughout the first verse of the song. Eventually it gets to the point where the drums and strings kick in and one of the more triumphant refrains on the album makes itself known. Despite how “squished” the production makes those elements sound, it is a fun moment when the drums drop in and she comes back around to belting out “Over and over and over and over again!” But the rest of the song feels disjointed, unsure whether it’s a party anthem viewed through rose-colored nostalgia glasses, a lament for a man she lost despite how good he apparently was at making her scream his name when they were getting intimate, or an erudite conversation between two people in which they wonder about things whether snow will cease to exist someday, or whether you see the same “green” as I do. There are lots of fun elements here, and I think I enjoy the song overall, but it seems to change on me just when I start to feel like I’ve found an entry point into it. It’s a vaguely likeable mess, is what I guess I’m saying.
4. Big God
Lyrically, this would be the track that reminds me the most of Ceremonials-era Florence, since as you can probably tell from the title, she lays on the religious language pretty thick here. It’s not necessarily an endorsement of any particular god, nor does it seem to be a rebuke of the idea that a god could exist… it’s more about a person having such an aching need that if some sort of a god does exist, it’s gonna have to be a really big one to fill in that massive chasm. The band uses minimal piano and drums to create a haunting rhythmic loop around which the song is built – it’s one of this album’s few good examples of how to start off small and yet have a song be engaging from the outset, rather than taking forever to come into focus. I’m not in love with every idea Florence expresses here – I feel like having all the God talk and then leading into a dramatic pre-chorus of “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, it hurts!” at the end of the second verse might make her a little guilty of baiting the folks who are going to try to interpret this song in more conventional religious terms. I’m not so easily offended any more that I take issue with the use of “Jesus Christ” as an expletive, but it can be confusing to me when a song is ambiguous as to whether it intends to use it as an expletive or refer to the actual religious figure. I just don’t know what to make of this one on so many levels, particularly when Florence gets especially yelpy in the climax of the song as she sings of being left on a white cliff as it slides down to the sea. Her last exclamation gives way to a bizarre vocal interlude in which the only sound you hear from her is a low, guttural, creaking noise. It’s meant to be unsettling, but just as I pointed out with “June” and “Hunger”, it seems like a cheap trick when this turns out to be how the song concludes, rather than leading into a final verse or chorus or instrumental break or something that makes me feel like they didn’t just cut off an intriguing song at the knees. THIS. IS. NOT. AN. ENDING.
5. Sky Full of Song
I said earlier that “Hunger” was the album’s first “conventional” single – maybe because I have a hard time wrapping my brain around this being the actual first song released from the album for promotional purposes. It’s mostly Florence’s voice, the sparse thumping of a bass or low electric guitar, and some slight vocal and instrumental embellishments here and there, but no real performance from the band in a conventional sense. It’s the kind of song that is designed to put Florence’s voice front and center, and I don’t mind a more contemplative interlude like this as a breather in the middle of a more intense album, but it makes this one feel like it’s running out of gas due to the mostly sluggish pace of it so far. I can’t fault Florence’s vocal performance here, which is top-notch, nor can I take issue with her lyrics, which almost feel like a short poem that she decided to bring to life rather spontaneously with minimal personnel on hand to spruce up the recording. It’s raw and yet refined as the same time, and I’m sure some listeners were thrilled at this unexpected new direction. It just doesn’t really do much for me. The mood of the song feels mostly flat – once you’ve passed the first chorus, that’s as intensely emotional as any of it’s gonna get. The bridge doesn’t even bother to change up the chord progression from the verses – it’s just a line from what might have been a third verse, repeated: “I thought that I was flying, but maybe I’m dying tonight.” The theme of flying vs. falling seems to crop up a few times on this album, so I won’t deny that there’s more to dig into in terms of storylines that might connect some of these songs to each other. But it feels like the song’s still working toward something it never arrives at when it cuts off abruptly after the chorus. This is not an… you know what, I’m kind of bored with this one, so fine, I’ll take it, this is an ending, let’s move on.
Now this is how you do it. A song unlike any that I’ve heard from Florence + The Machine before, equal parts baroque pop and dusky nightclub jazz, brightens up the second half of the record, paradoxically living up to its name due to all of the wonderful piano flourishes and Gospel-tinged backing vocals, while retaining a sort of drunken, stumbling character to it which contradicts that very same name. It’s a small miracle that these conflicting personalities are both essential components of this heart-wrenching ballad, rather than making it feel as disjointed and awkward as some of the earlier cuts on the record. The name “Grace” has a double meaning here, mainly referring to Florence’s younger sister Grace, who often had to take care of her when she was a drunken screw-up in her school years. Florence knows her family isn’t much for big, verbal displays of emotion, so her singing loud and clear that she loves her sister in this song is a big effing deal. (Particularly when she startles us by dropping the phrase “it was such a fucking mess” into an already intense chorus full of equal parts anguish and gratitude. Spotify marks three tracks on this record as “explicit”, but for the life of me I can’t pick out anything nearly as startling in “South London Forever” or the upcoming “100 Years”, so this stands alone as an example of Florence saving up that big curseword for when it’s gonna impact the listener most.) Florence knows that she’d been loved and cared for by this person she treated so horribly, which pretty clearly communicates the other meaning of grace without the lyrics ever having to oversell the concept. This is a song that might take some patience to get into, and unfortunately I do think its impact is diminished by being on an album full of mostly slower, sparser songs. This is easily a more arresting ballad than any of the slower songs heard on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, and it feels like a missed opportunity to not have it sitting there, demanding attention as a gut-wrenching change of pace between some of the more intense, up-tempo anthems heard on that record.
I can just imagine the label at this point, wringing their hands and going, “So hey guys, appreciate the less-is-more vibe on the new record, but we’re gonna need another single, so let’s pick up the pace a little here and there, ‘K?” This song sounds a bit more like How Big-era Florence + The Machine to my ears, but in an almost perfunctory manner. I don’t really care much for the way it opens, with yet another verse floating around in the ether before the band kicks in… but jeez, at least I finally get to hear the full band performing for the majority of a song. The rhythm section’s strong here, while Florence’s more rapid-fire lyrics and the rhythmic cadences of the song remind me quite a bit of “Delilah” from the How Big, while the string and harp-drenched outro it eventually melts into reminds me of that album’s gorgeous title track. As much as I appreciate the more hopeful atmosphere of this song (which Florence wrote as a tribute to one of her musical heroes, Patti Smith), my excitement wears off a bit once I realize the band is basically cribbing from better songs they’ve already recorded.
8. 100 Years
I feel like I should really like this song. Why don’t I like this song all that much? It seems like a great idea on paper – lofty ideas being expressed about prayer and non-violence and people coming together in beautiful harmony to overcome society’s problems… and then cynicism ultimately winning the day as hope gets stomped down by the sheer pettiness and brutality of human beings at their worst. That’s good for drama, right? Oh, except that this is yet another song that opens on a verse of Florence mostly floating around out there by herself (there’s a weak piano melody barely holding things together, but come on). And when it gets to what the band considers a climax here, it’s such an inelegant mess of stomping and clapping and blurting horns and so forth that it neither feels huge, nor startling, nor as terrifying as the lyrics seem to want it to. It just feels tedious – and that’s coming from a guy who almost never met a rhythm full of stomping and clapping sounds that he didn’t instantly love. At five minutes, this song is the longest on the album, just barely edging out “Grace”, but to my ears, it feels almost twice as long as that song because of how stilted and labored its sense of pacing is. This is not a bad song, but it’s definitely a frustrating one to listen to.
9. The End of Love
The drawn-out, mournful strings that seem to stretch on into the distant, hazy, setting sun at the beginning of this song, leading into a set of rather somber piano chords, make me think for a moment that I’ve been dropped into the deep end of a Sigur Rós record. For all of the time I’ve spent bagging on this album for how diffuse and cumbersome its song intros can be, this is a perfect example of how to get such a thing right. The lyrics in this song depict a great emptiness that Florence encountered in a dream, in which she was lucid enough to think, when the phrase “The End of Love” came to mind to describe the scenario she was witnessing, that it’d be a great name for a song. She says it right there in the lyrics, in an oddly effective moment of meta-commentary on her own songwriting. Listening to this song, I feel I’m getting a glimpse of a shockingly quiet apocalypse – no hellfire raining from the sky, no wars raging all over the globe, just the sudden absence of human contact, replaced by the cold steel and asphalt of looming skyscrapers and empty streets on a summer day in New York that should be bursting at the seams with throngs of people. For all of her restraint, the drawn-out notes in the chorus, bolstered by several layers of backing vocals, send a chill up my spine as she sings: “We were reaching in the dark/That summer in New York/And it was so far to fall/That it didn’t hurt at all.” There’s some tragic imagery here, in which Florence describes a flood overtaking her house and being barely pulled up through the floorboards in time to avoid certain death, and yet she seems to long for that death, at least in a figurative sense – “Let the river rush in, not wash away.” Against all of this is the story of her grandmother’s suicide – apparently she literally flung herself from a balcony just as the lyrics say. I don’t think the song is advocating suicide so much as it’s empathizing with how it must feel for someone to long for an end to the pain so much that an ending which might strike the rest of us as tragic actually seems to them like it would be a peaceful release. This song comforts me, and terrifies me, and makes me want to sing at the top of my lungs, and makes me want to cry my eyes out, all at once. Now this, THIS is an ending!
10. No Choir
Of course, that last song wasn’t actually the ending, because Florence had to go and tack on a lyrical afterthought here, deliberately sabotaging her band’s instinct to end on something big and choral and grandiose, and instead closing out the record on a mildly witty observation about her own songwriting tendencies, noting that it’s hard to write about being happy because choirs don’t sing about people sitting around doing nothing. Sure, conflict makes for better stories than complacency, and a lot of sad or angry music seems to strike a deeper chord with me as a listener than music that is merely happy. But I think she’s selling herself – and more importantly, her band – quite a bit short with this go-nowhere little ditty. As a singer, Florence has too much gravitas to suddenly switch gears and try something small and self-consciously twee on for size. The melody seems to purposefully avoid anything resembling a strong refrain, and at two and a half minutes, there isn’t time to repeat much anyway, making it more of an outro than a song unto itself (which I wouldn’t mind on a twelve-track album such as the band’s first few, but when this is one of only ten songs, I feel a bit ripped off as a listener.) By the end of it, she’s devolved into not even singing lyrics, as the last verse deliberately doesn’t finish getting written: “And there will be no grand choirs to sing/No chorus will come in/No ballad will be written/This will be entirely forgotten/And do, do do do do…” … and so on and so forth until it just sputters out and dies. This isn’t cute, it’s not terribly insightful, and most importantly… *deep breath* GAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHTHISISNOTANENDING!!!!!1!1! AARGHBLAARGHRACKINFRACKINRAGEQUIT
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
South London Forever $.75
Big God $1
Sky Full of Song $.25
100 Years $.50
The End of Love $1.25
No Choir –$.25
Florence Welch: Lead vocals, percussion
Isabella Summers: Keyboards, piano, synths, backing vocals
Robert Ackroyd: Lead guitar
Tom Monger: Harp, xylophone, percussion, backing vocals
Cyrus Bayandor: Bass
Aku Orraca-Tetteh: Percussion, backing vocals
Dionne Douglas: Violin, backing vocals
Hazel Mills: Keyboard, backing vocals
Loren Humphrey: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: