Florence & The Machine Displays Different Kind of Vulnerability on ‘How Big How Blue How Beautiful’: Album Review

Florence & the Machine
Rock
4
Island

Since Florence Welch made her debut in 2009, she has created music that turns heads and widens eyes. There's no doubt she's a ­flamboyantly imaginative writer and a captivating vocalist and performer. Yet her first two albums, with their mixture of cabaret ­exercises and stadium-scale anthems, never quite conveyed a sense of lasting consequence. Her art-rock models, such as Kate Bush and Bjork, were clear, but Welch, 28, often seemed like she shared their love of grandiosity more than their nervy willingness to follow a concept to its end, even when it means making music that's not so pretty or easy to like. Welch had the sweep but not the swerve, and the result was songs that were ravishing but could feel oddly impersonal.

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Between 2011's Ceremonials and her new album, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, however, she took a yearlong break to sort out some personal issues -- the bad habits and relationship ­damage that are so often inflicted by years of perpetual touring. The hiatus helped her reassess her music as well. In her recent Billboard cover interview, Welch credits Taylor Swift -- nobody's idea of an art-rocker -- with counseling her that she needed to draw more directly on her life for her songs. The payoff is immediately audible on How Big. It's not a radical reformation of Welch's style; she hasn't stripped all the ornamentation from her cathedral of sound and become a folky confessional songwriter. But she is resorting less to abstract, lofty imagery and speaking with a more frank immediacy. There's a confrontational edge to these songs, a dash of Chrissie Hynde pugilism to balance all that Stevie Nicks necromancy. The first lines of "Ship to Wreck," already one of the more memorable singles of 2015, open on a scene of a body in peril -- "Don't touch the sleeping pills, they mess with my head" -- and work their way through one of those painful morning-after reconstructions: "Oh, my love, remind me, what was it I did? Did I drink too much, am I losing touch, did I build a ship to wreck?" On that song and the following, equally urgent "What Kind of Man," Welch and producer Markus Dravs (a rigorous ­taskmaster whom many artists, such as Coldplay and Arcade Fire, have called on when feeling at risk of a rut) have given her sound a more lean, streamlined propulsion, providing her with plenty of dynamic space to fill, as few other vocalists of her generation can do so well.

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Fans of Welch's most expansively raving anthems won't go wanting here, however. Songs including "Queen of Peace" and "Third Eye" offer all the sky-high layered harmonies, rolling and echoing drums, and orchestral exclamation points one could desire, with horn arrangements by Will Gregory of Goldfrapp. But the intensity is relieved by sparse, restrained songs like the organ-led meditation "St. Jude" or "Long & Lost," which, with its hovering guitar and strings and clunks of electronic ­percussion, evokes the dreamy swells of mid-1990s Kate Bush B-sides, or maybe even Cocteau Twins. The only letdown is closer "Mother," on which Paul Epworth takes over production and comes up with a spiky jam that's alternately meandering and overly melodramatic.

No matter the mood and tempo, though, the Florence & The Machine heard on How Big How Blue How Beautiful is a newly self-aware one. It shows a different kind of mastery by allowing for a different kind of vulnerability, an especially delicate balancing act for a young woman in pop music. "It's hard to see it when you're in it," Welch sings on "Caught." Perhaps, but by making that extra stretch for perspective, an artist can create songs that help listeners work out their own tangles and take measure of their own traps. In other words, the songs that people return to.

This story originally appeared in the May 30 issue of Billboard.