Someone once described Florence and the Machine to me as something akin to “being in a new wave church,” a description I find remains as pertinent as ever. High as Hope marches into 2018 as Florence Welch’s most pious record, albeit to subjects she finds worthy of her faith: her hometown, the LGBTQ community, Patti Smith.
These subjects arrive alongside themes and musical elements we’ve seen from the Machine before: big open skies (How Big, How Blue . . . ), menacing religious undertones (“Drumming Noise”), booming percussion (“What Kind of Man”, “Blinding”). As a result, High as Hope often fails to sound all that different from its predecessors, which already stand as monoliths of Welch’s creative power. “I thought I was flying but maybe I was dying,” she laments on “Sky Full of Song”, where her formerly combative nature takes a backseat to introspection.
Lyrically, High as Hope forsakes Welch’s knack for vibrant imagery and symbolism for more human modifiers and concerns. While it allows her to share more personal information, Welch’s straightforward songwriting means there are no “Howl”’s or “Ship to Wreck”’s present here, a letdown when you consider how well Welch morphs herself into a lycanthrope or seafaring vessel through her words alone. That said, lines like “Give me arms to pray with/instead of ones that hold too tightly,” remain as beautiful and observant as ever, layered with meanings to digest as you listen to High as Hope in the midst of a summer storm.
Despite these critiques, High as Hope surpasses many of them to solidify itself as a decent record. “End of Love” is as gorgeous as any Florence and the Machine song has ever sounded; if these harmonies fail to open the heavens, nothing will ever. “No Choir” is Florence at her most self-aware and most vulnerable. She appears less fearful of death this time around yet still just as tuned into its finality: “No ballad will be written/it will be entirely forgotten.” As per, Florence Welch’s voice resounds like a massive church bell, capable of turning the mundane into epic fantasies and sweeping tribulations. It remains her strongest tool, and one I never see going out of style.
The most fascinating track, the ghost-ing ode “Big God”, also offers a brief glimmer of where Florence and the Machine could go from here. The 1:32 mark gives you a brief moment of glitchy, synthetic elements the Machine might consider adding to their repertoire. She sounds great on “Sweet Nothing”, and adding a few new elements might help the band from falling into homogeny. Seeing Kamasi Washington’s name on the “100 Years” credits even makes you wonder what magic Florence Welch might do with alongside a jazz or funk ensemble.
Ultimately, there would be more to say if High as Hope, and the rest of the band’s discography, didn’t already lay it out for you. C PLUS