Florence + The Machine – How Big How Blue How Beautiful – Review
Florence Welch, she’s synonymous with the biggest summer festivals, with her powerhouse vocals and glitter-drenched performances, she never fails to draw the crowds. These sell-out shows were marked by the success of her first two critically acclaimed albums, Lungs and Ceremonials, that saw Florence dramatically progress as an artist. Lungs received the Album of the Year nod at the Brit Awards in 2010, whilst Grammy-nominated Ceremonials was written on the road for the promotional tour of Lungs and recorded once the tour was over. A new album created whilst promoting another? Her talents seemed unending. The shows were getting bigger, the hair redder, and the success wider and wilder.
Florence herself admitted that becoming a world-wide phenomenon with two international hit albums under her belt left a lot to be desired, particularly in what many of us considered mundane. Having immersed herself in her music for over seven years, she felt the need to return to normality, getting out, discovering herself, finding and losing love, and moving beyond her the hermetic lifestyle she had become so accustomed to on the road.
“It was sort of a crash landing” Florence freely admits, “I guess although I’ve always dealt in fantasy and metaphor when I came to writing that meant the songs this time were dealing much more in reality. Ceremonials was so fixated on death and water, and the idea of escape or transcendence through death, but the new album became about trying to learn how live, and how to love in the world rather than trying to escape from it. Which is frightening because I’m not hiding behind anything but it felt like something I had to do.”
And with that, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was born.
Produced by Markus Dravs who has worked with other anthem markers such as Björk, Arcade Fire, and Coldplay, with contributions from Paul Epworth, Kid Harpoon and John Hill, this album saw a movement to a more rustic sound, with an element of unhinged realism, and the classic velveteen voice that has made Florence a household name. Her development as a musician can be seen in her continuous input in this album in particular, deciding herself that it would be laden with trumpets. “And I knew I wanted a brass section on this record”, she adds of a group of musicians who were arranged by Will Gregory of Goldfrapp.
This album so perfectly conveys a wonderful dichotomy of the sublime and the gentle in one. ‘Ship to Wreck’, the opening track is notably one that a bursting enthusiasm, her voice rings throughout the track with the classic Florence timbre; and yet, a gentleness permeates throughout the track. The track itself was shaped by the well-established hands of London-based songwriter/producer Kid Harpon, who had also played a crucial role in the production of Ceremonials’ Grammy-nominated track ‘Shake It Out’. Indeed it was during a month-long creative process with Kid in Los Angeles that the instantaneously well-received first single ‘What Kind Of Man’ was created. The track itself demonstrated that Florence was back with a bang, producing a defiant song filled with the sonorous vocals that have garnered her a wealth of awards already.
The title track, ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’, was Welch’s own brainchild, admitting that it was the first track she “wrote for this record, literally as I just came off tour“, she explains, “and then I went off and had this incredibly chaotic year, and that all went into the record. But in the end, the feeling of How Big How Blue is what I came back to.” This song was her way of reflecting the feeling of love, that first flutter of passion, through music. The culmination of trumpets that builds so triumphantly towards the end is just the uplifting air that this entire album holds. It sounds and feels far less sombre, and dramatic than her first two albums, immersing herself in normality, and returning to the mundane clearly inspired her to appreciate every aspect of her life, no matter how insignificant they may appear.
Even the songs that may seem more reserved and slow, such as ‘Various Storms and Saints’ and ‘Delilah’ are markedly more uplifted than her first two albums by the very nature of her voice. There’s a new warmth to her voice that makes it sound far more gentle and hopeful, like birds’ song, there’s something so charming and buoyant to it that they become almost infectious. ‘St Jude’ feels far more familiar, not unlike tracks on ‘Ceremonial’ speaking of the patron saint of the lost cause, there’s a simmering pain just bubbling under the surface of this track, isolation and separation seem to be the theme but they do not weigh down this track, they act as locus of experience. ‘Caught’ was by far my own personal favourite, the rustic elements Florence sought to convey in this album are distinctly palpable. The untouched quality of her voice just gives the entire track an enviable sincerity, you can tell that this album is compiled of tracks written from a place of experience. The gentle nature of the song almost makes it a confessional, an admittance of love and lost and personal failures, but an unwavering hope that cannot be extinguished.
For me, this album has the potential to be her best yet, it draws on all the fundamentals of her past two albums but manages to repackage them in a way that seems more optimistic-delightful rather than sorrowful. There’s a sense of looking forward than back, it’s amazing to see Florence grow as a musician and bring all elements of her life, from her personal experiences to her experiences on the road, and just offer us this insight, this taster of what she’s learned.
It’s alchemy. It’s magic. It’s the return of Florence + The Machine.
Review by Elaine McDonald