If 2011's 'Ceremonials' was the exorcism of Florence Welch, then the 28-year-old's follow up 'How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful' is her break-up album. While that may seem a somewhat fashionable move this year - Bjork and Best Coast have mined a similar vein - Florence utilises her songwriting like therapy here to create an accurate picture of angst, regret and rejection. That may not sound like the most enticing proposition, but stripping away many of the more esoteric references and flourishes of her previous work reveals a far more vulnerable and interesting Florence. Indeed, the album should carry a warning sticker for those who have ever fallen in love with the wrong person. That's how uncomfortably accurate many of the lyrical observations are across these eleven songs
It's also rare to see four singles unveiled prior to the release of a tent pole album such as this. There's obviously a confidence at the record company that the songs stand up on their own without the wider context of the album itself. Maybe that's because the gravitas of the subject matter may put people off the complete package without an air of familiarity first. However well those tracks have performed they do have more impact here as the cumulative narrative builds a complete picture of Florence's post-relationship mood. Musically, there's also a shift in these songs. There's more guitar and brass, less reliance upon keyboards and big production, giving a more organic and intimate feel that was explored previously during the MTV unplugged show. There are still soaring choruses and call and responses multi-tracked vocals of course, but the track listing and sound of this record doesn't seem interchangeable with Florence + The Machine's previous two efforts. This is certainly a bespoke set of songs that work best as a concept album of sorts.
Lead single 'What Kind Of Man' replicates the darkness of 'Ceremonials' and demonstrates the anger you might expect from a break-up album as Florence's voice drips with venom over a jagged riff. It's lines like "To let me dangle at a cruel angle, my feet don't touch the floor" which cut to the heart of the matter here. But it's not all bitter rejection; as the album moves forward the first glimmers of hope start to shine through. Lines like "I know you're bleeding, but you'll be ok" ('Various Storms & Saints') and the internal conversation that forms the central theme of 'Delilah' demonstrate that there is a continuing narrative to the record. While the latter song relies upon a slightly clichéd idea of a phone call that never comes, the frankness and truth of the sentiment ensure that it avoids a reliance on overly familiar tropes. The most defiant and uplifting moment comes with the catharsis of 'Third Eye' which lyrically and musically re-instates a sense of confidence following a number of quieter and more contemplative songs.
Florence hasn't completely abandoned the thematic undertones of her earlier work here. There are religious undercurrents and a few images of water that bubble to the surface, but there are fewer of them, which allows her more space to create an intimate and personal set of songs. 'St Jude' is somewhat of an exception, the synths creep in on this subdued ode to "lost causes" and it brings to mind a more sedate 'Spectrum'. It's at this moment that you realise that Florence is perhaps now more comfortable as a songwriter than she's ever been as she starts to slowly re-introduce more familiar elements from her past work. The following track 'Mother' which closes the album may demonstrate this shift most effectively as the song slowly builds from a hazy beach groove to a stunning crescendo.
The album title says it all really; Florence's new creation is equal parts Big, Blue, and Beautiful. She's lost none of her appeal despite revealing more of herself on this record than ever before. While it may be a more challenging listen, due to the subject matter, than many other albums that will climb high in the charts, the ongoing success of Florence + The Machine is well deserved based on these songs.
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