Sing, O Goddess, the fury of Florence! Sing her Machine’s devastation, which puts pain and joy thousandfold upon us all. Begin, Muse, when she first broke and then clashed with her enemies. Florence, flame-haired daughter of the weird sisters — Stevie, Kate, and Tori — has countless opponents. Former lovers. Personal demons. Music critics. Many deny the majesty of her Ceremonials. Others decry the power of her Lungs. By Zeus! They are loud, a pack of howling dogs. But Florence is louder yet, dear Muse. Her voice roars, a tidal wave: big, blue, beautiful. And it has returned to our shores, with a crash, to bathe her friends in its glory and wash her foes into the wine-dark sea.
The non-Homeric take on Florence and the Machine’s third release is that it’s a retreat from High Drama. How Big How Blue How Beautiful pivots toward accessibility, they say. It’s Florence Welch’s first serious attempt to conquer the mainstream charts. This narrative of a commercial reboot is, for the most part, overstated. True, Welch’s latest work is her most earthbound and human, one that explores a breakup and its boozy aftermath. How Big How Blue How Beautiful also ditches the witchy ways of Ceremonials. Gone are the descending harp glissandos and forays through graveyards. Producer Markus Dravs labors to refashion billowing sonic robes into a clean pop-rock silhouette. And his herculean efforts pay off, at least on the surface. But Florence's fundamental aesthetic (gargantuan is good, monumental is best) well withstands Dravs’ scissors.
The album, almost as grand as its predecessor, is resplendent with horn fanfares and vocals that call to Olympus. Even at its quietest and most fragile, pomp is omnipresent throughout How Big How Blue How Beautiful. Depending on the listener, this hugeness will either be its heroic triumph or its fatal downfall. I’m, as always, in the former camp, a staunch Florentine. As I remarked in my review of Ceremonials, Welch’s music is, by design, ambivalence-free. The song, though tweaked a bit, remains the same on How Big How Blue How Beautiful. Without having to hear a single thunderous note, taste and bias will determine how much you love or loathe it.
Unlike Ceremonials, How Big How Blue How Beautiful isn’t an unceasing aural onslaught. It flows forth, with a flash-flood of bombast, on album opener “Ship to Wreck” and lead single “What Kind of Man”. But it ebbs too, and quick. The title track, a love letter to the Angeleno skyline, dials back the grandeur by a notch, despite its mid-tempo thrust. “Various Storms & Saints” begins naked, with little more than a somber guitar accompaniment. It later adds the requisite swelling strings and a choir of vocal overdubs. Given its surroundings, though, this muscular ballad is a model of restraint. The same is true for “Long & Lost”, which is less powerful, if more skeletal. The remarkable dirge “St. Jude”, a song I hated at first, gains new emotional force when put in its proper context. On it, Welch’s heart hemorrhages over a funereal organ drone. You know things are bad when she can’t seem to muster the strength to deliver the slightest hint of a crescendo. How Big How Blue How Beautiful takes its most unexpected, and welcome, detour on the breezy duo of “Caught” and “Third Eye”. With both, Dravs marries Welch's natural flamboyance and the verve of cheeseball, anthemic pop. Needless to say, they’re my two favorite tracks, by a mile.
To be clear: How Big How Blue How Beautiful’s subtlety is only relative, when compared to its juggernaut of an elder sibling. Gigantic hooks aren’t on the endangered species list here. The album’s shifting dynamics offer a respite to the proceedings. But they also underscore all instances of over-the-top theatricality, which arrive with breathless regularity. “Delilah”, “Queen of Peace”, “What Kind of Man”, and “Ship to Wreck” are battering rams. Their target? The chest, by way of the eardrum. And yet, a battering ram is a tool unsuited for Florence and the Machine’s world-flattening ambitions. Every song on How Big How Blue How Beautiful instead strives to be a thermonuclear warhead. And Welch’s struggle, with heartbreak and sobriety, is their emotional payload. When encased so thick in flourish, they can, at first, seem like duds. Detonation comes over time, and with repeated listens.
How Big How Blue How Beautiful may just be a better record than the one it follows. It chisels at Ceremonials’ baroque marble sculpture to reveal something smaller and more appealing. Alas, no track on Florence and the Machine's latest can match the celestial height of “Shake It Out” or “What the Water Gave Me”. (Not to mention the pure thrill of “Dog Days are Over” or “Kiss With a Fist”.) Both albums soar, but toward perpendicular destinations. One upward, to the pristine heavens. The other inward, through a war-torn heart.
How Big How Blue How Beautiful is out on MP3, CD and vinyl.
Cover photo courtesy Reddit user dipengrey.