Wednesday, 17 June 2015
Florence + the Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful review
Over their spectacular albeit short discography, Florence and the Machine have achieved both critical and commercial acclaim ever since they burst onto the scene in 2007 with “Dog Days Are Over” and subsequently their debut album Lungs. What initially drew my attention to FATM was the commanding and passionate vocals of front woman and primary songwriter Florence Welch alongside the organic and ‘quirky’ instrumentation that dominated the band’s early material. On their sophomore album Ceremonials however, the band left the meadows and forest creatures behind in favor of soul choirs, lavish string arrangements and a new, more sleek aesthetic altogether. As much I adore both of the aforementioned records, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful comes as a refreshing new chapter for the band’s discography, delivering a sharp, streamlined yet equally enjoyable record.
As the title hints, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful contains a fair number of epic moments, in fact, I’d go as far as to say that the record is dominated by huge choruses, much like the band’s previous material. ‘Ship to Wreck’, one of the more uptempo and joyous cuts, laced with jingle-jangling guitar chords which recall the solo work of Fleetwood Mac legend Stevie Nicks. One of the bigger moments on the record come on the horn-laced “Queen of Peace”, which is one of the strongest tracks the band have ever produced both sonically and lyrically, the tense horn/drum combo along with the regal imagery capture Florence Welch’s lyrical talent at its very best, a career highlight. Another standout, “Third Eye”, displays Welch’s knack for hook-laden songwriting, complete with soaring chants and the desperate assertion of the lyric “I’m the same, I’m the same, I’m trying to change”, once again reinforcing the idea that this record is a new chapter for the band.
Between these grand moments Florence and Co. also come through with some more reflective cuts, some rather blue moments, if you will. This mood is captured perfectly on the track “Caught”; what feels like a real breakthrough for Welch artistically, “Caught” is a frank and honest confession of her shortcomings, as if she’s coming clean and leaving her mistakes behind in order to free herself at last. This reflective vibe serves her less well on the track “Long & Lost”, one of the weaker tracks on the record. Here the instrumentation remains stagnant and even a little drab despite Welch’s voice being as stunning as ever. Even if the melody isn’t up to much I will always welcome a track where I can hear Florence giving a more restrained vocal performance, so this is still very much an essential part of the album.
When the moments of melancholy subside, the clouds eventually part to reveal a glimmer of sun to penetrate the grey-scale sheen, making for some, dare I say, rather beautiful moments. With harp being such a prominent feature on many of their older tracks, we know that Florence and the Machine never shy away from a more ethereal and otherworldly sound. On the stunning penultimate track “St Jude”, we hear a more skeletal and vulnerable side of the band’s sound, the use of organ reflecting the soulful grandeur of Ceremonials, to some extent. The title track is one of the more dynamic moments on the record, deviating from folk-rock to baroque and chamber pop when the horn and string sections kick in towards the swooning outro.
With such an ambitious title and such a long absence, it is just as well that Florence and the Machine have in fact come through with a record which is big, blue and beautiful (I went there). With only 11 tracks on the standard edition, every track is vital to the flow and momentum of the record; gentle and reflective cuts like “St Jude” and “Caught” ensure that there is emotional diversity whilst the more anthemic tracks like “Third Eye” and “Queen Of Peace” retain the mainstream appeal of the band’s older sound, striking the perfect balance between appeasing loyal fans and including those who didn’t quite get the oddball charm of the band’s earlier material.
Best tracks: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Queen of Peace, Caught, Third Eye, St Jude