Album Review – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful / Florence + The Machine

Florence and the Machine’s third album is a big step forward in terms of firsts. Florence got a new producer on board (Markus Dravs of Arcade Fire and Mumfords fame) and also had a single that was instantly catchy that wasn’t a cover or a Calvin Harris collab. Unlike first album Lungs, which was dwarfed by the Candi Staton cover ‘You’ve Got The Love’ and ‘that Slumdog Millionaire song’, ‘Dog Days Are Over’. Rolling into 2011, Ceremonials brought in a bigger sound, but was once again dwarfed by the singles, particularly the Calvin Harris remix of ‘Sweet Nothing’. The album was pretty solid, but wasn’t as good as Lungs. So, four years later, Florence + The Machine have returned with a pretty low-key release in comparison with the previous two albums, but nothing less dramatic and showcasing of Florence’s hefty pipes. It’s come off the back of fantastic single ‘Ship To Wreck’ and ‘What Kind of Man’, which was a strange foray into heavy rock instrumentation with the vicious guitars. It actually worked very well, making a stark contrast with the harps, brass and acoustic guitars of old. It showed an angrier side that didn’t need Florence yelling out hate songs to do it. It also sets the scene for a harsher album altogether.

‘What Kind of Man’ has the furious chorus of ‘What kind of man loves like this?’ and ‘You inspired a fire of devotion / that lasted twenty years’, playing off like a kiss-off divorce song. There’s the guitars, but there’s also the big-band instrumentation Florence approves of. However, a lot of time it feels like that the horns and trumpets are just there because they have to be, in order to create some sort of grandeur, like in the title track towards the end. Florence’s voice creates a vast atmosphere as it is and this is why the quieter songs sometimes pack a bigger punch than the singles-in-waiting. So the title track’s almost two-minute meandering of strings and brass comes across as just a bit too pretentious and overly grand. The quieter songs, like ‘Various Storms & Saints’ is a beautiful builder which almost sounds like it has Thom Yorke doing his wail in the background a-la ‘Beautiful Feeling’. If the song had just exploded into a typical Florence song, it probably wouldn’t have been as good, but the build,build, build, kill technique works well in this situation.

Florence comes back with some royalty-and-battle lyrics in ‘Queen of Peace’, which combines a quicker drumbeat than previous songs and brass. She refers to herself as ‘the queen of peace’ and I get the impression she’s alluding to her family, with the ‘King gone mad’ and ‘his own son, cut down’ as some grand metaphor for a family falling apart, then she delivers a disarming ‘And my love is no good / against the fortress it made of you’. Florence has always stuck out in the pop world for her ethereal, naturally or historically, lyrics. That’s no different here, though only ‘Ship To Wreck’ has Florence’s favourite topic – water – since Ceremonials went all out on the water imagery.

There are a few throwaway songs on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, in ‘Caught’ and ‘Delilah’. ‘Caught’ is a half-decent song that could’ve been chucked on the back end of Ceremonials and ‘Delilah’, as fourth single, doesn’t have the pop appeal of ‘Ship To Wreck’ or the innovation of ‘What Kind of Man’ to be on the same level. The worst parts of the album are when Florence reverts back to old-Florence, who we’ve heard two albums of now. ‘Caught’ just sort of ambles along mid-way through the album and the mid-point is generally where the mid-paced, sleepy songs come in and knock the album off balance. The album only just recovers by deploying ‘Third Eye’, while not too extensive on lyrics ‘You are flesh and blood! / And you deserve to be loved’ and the chorus of ‘original lifeline’ backed by Florence herself. The beat of the song is solid and the swelling instrumentation works well, until the bridge, where Florence’s voice fails her for the first time I can think of as she goes into a falsetto that errs on painful.

However, never fear because  ‘Mother’ is another remarkable change for Florence’s typical song. It shows a psych-rock side to her that she doesn’t explore enough and feels wasted on just the one song. It begins as a guitar-led tropical song, with Florence singing ‘Can you protect me from what I want?’ towards her mother. Then it explodes into a typical Florence big-song chorus. However, from there on in, a heavy buzzing guitar cuts through the Florence-ness of it all, followed by a phaser and some Tame Impala atmospherics.

As an evolving of Florence, How Big… does its job, however a good third of the album is still lost in the past despite strong lyrics to hold them up. The instrumentation never veers away from anything typical of Lungs or Ceremonials, although it has a whole lot less harp on these songs. The good moments, ‘What Kind of Man’, ‘Mother’ and ‘Third Eye’ are sidesteps into weirder territories, and not necessarily territories that will appeal to the top 40. Florence has always managed to sit on the fence between pop and alternative, but now it’s the pop side that’s letting her down for the first time. It’s unlikely that Florence is going to say ‘yeah, let’s make a psychedelic album’ in two years time as her foot is firmly in pop’s door, but flecks of experimentalism will never go amiss.

5/10

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