Talking to Pitchfork a couple of months ago, Florence Welch promised Florence + The Machine’s sophomore album Ceremonials would eschew the disparate ideas and sounds found on her debut album Lungs and instead expand on the booming baroque-pop of her hit single “Dog Days are Over”:
With Lungs, I hit on the sound I wanted about halfway through making it. There were so many different influences, and the differences between a song like "Kiss With a Fist" and "Dog Days" are huge because I'd written one when I was 17 and one when I was 21. With this record, I've been able to expand on the idea that I was hitting on towards the end of making Lungs.
The idea she was referring to, found on a number of Lungs tracks apart from “Dog Days,” is balladry made thunderous, pop songs as fortresses with impenetrable walls of sonics, tooth-rattling dynamics, and flights of theatricality fit for the Broadway stage.
Not only was Welch true to her word, her remarks didn’t accurately convey the sheer enormousness of her and producer Paul Epworth’s final product. Ceremonials pummels from the start and never retreats. It’s an ambivalence-free album, one that’s sure to create dual camps of haters and true believers. I am firmly and enthusiastically in the latter camp, as much now as I was after my first listen. Ceremonials is a stunning record, but no amount of proselytizing will convince the naysayers. They can be damned.
Ceremonials is the second pop record this year to embrace bombast and High Drama without reserve. The other, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, took me some time to absorb, making my review of Born This Way appear hasty in retrospect. I faulted Gaga for what I thought was an overblown sound and general lack of good taste. It turns out, the fault was mine. I’ve since been won over by the album, which has become one of my favorites this year and in my opinion one of the great pop albums in a long time. Florence Welch seems to agree, as Ceremonials is the melancholic younger sister of Gaga’s exuberant Wagnerian-rock masterwork. Welch’s songs, which have dance structures at their center minus the requisite beats, will no doubt be treated to four-on-the-floor remixing, thus making the comparison all the more obvious. (The disco-influenced “Spectrum,” however, is ready for the club, as is.)
But on Ceremonials, Florence Welch has many older, more-or-less illustrious forbears, who include Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Tyler, Björk, Fiona Apple, and (not to exclude the opposite sex) Rufus Wainwright. If Ceremonials most invokes a single artistic influence, it is Under the Pink-era Tori Amos. All the album’s triptych of “What the Water Gave Me,” “Never Let Me Go,” and (most strikingly) “Breaking Down” is missing is a Bösendorfer to complete the homage.
It may seem strange that Welch is drawing on artists who have more cult appeal than marketability. After all, “Dog Days” reached such a level of cultural saturation that it gained the ultimate coronation — a Glee cover version. As the demo and acoustic counterparts of these tracks (included on the deluxe edition of Ceremonials) show, Florence Welch has songs and a voice to rival Adele, this year’s other, albeit blander, pop behemoth. The acoustic version of “Shake It Out” is certainly more direct and accessible than the official album track. Its dazzling melody and Welch’s superb instrument is upfront and unencumbered by thick orchestration. It could have been a hit. Yet Welch and Epworth instead chose artistry over sales (though the two are not always mutually exclusive). It was a praiseworthy move, and Ceremonials is all the better for it. Few artists of Florence Welch’s caliber would trade mainstream appeal for integrity or ecstatic critical ovations.
No matter how often Welch imagines her own watery death (as she also did on Lungs), or mixes bromides with the bizarre (animal entrails are too often ignored in pop), or verges on New Age nonsense, Ceremonials in its final form is hardly difficult to embrace. The whole of the album is so far greater than its parts that no matter how ridiculous it can seem at any one moment, minor gripes can be forgotten and are sometimes elevated into strengths. The key to Ceremonials' success is Welch’s fundamental and vigorous commitment to her vision, however flawed, and her melodies, which are always impeccable.
On the album’s transcendent final track “Leave My Body” Welch gives up the ghost and escapes her mortal coil and her past at once. It’s a fitting conclusion: Ceremonials does the same. For every harp glissando, choral incantation, hammering drum, celestial dalliance, unselfconscious moment of sincerity, and most of all, nod backward, Ceremonials is at its core a stellar pop album draped in exquisite and perplexing cloths. Naked underneath is a major new Artist who is worthy of that capital A. Her remarkable new album is too.
Stream 'Ceremonials' in its entirety here.