Friday, May 29, 2015

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful | Florence + The Machine



When mainstream audiences in the United States were introduced to English alternative pop-rock band Florence + The Machine in 2010, lead singer Florence Welch was in the first of many creative eras. As she recited the lines to the band's breakout single "Dog Days Are Over," her skin was painted white, her hair was dyed a vibrant red or covered by a bizarre wig, and her outfits were strikingly unorthodox - almost as to camouflage the core of her being. Slowly but surely, she began to let her guard down; the stage make-up was wiped away, her saturated hair color began to fade, and her fashion statements became original, yet subtle.

Five years removed from the success of "Days," Welch admits, "I've gone through loads of different phases. I get into stuff in a really intense way and then I move on." However, the goal of the band's third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, is to reveal the realest side of Welch, not to build a new wall around her. As Welch explained, "With this record, I feel like the boundaries between, like, who I am off stage and on stage... there's not much separation." In lieu of her theatrics and ornate costumes, she now embraces her own head of burnt auburn hair, earth-tone imagery, and off-white pantsuits. The record itself, though, proves that the newest reincarnate of Florence Welch is not just a physical transformation, but a sonic one as well.

After working heavily with Paul Epworth on the first two albums, Welch selected Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Bj√∂rk, Coldplay) to produce this new record in its entirety (spare the Epworth-produced "Mother"). With Dravs' help, the band now showcases a refined and scaled-back version of their existing sound. Ceremonials lunged at listeners like a tidal wave and immersed them in a sea of expansive, luxuriant production, but How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful dazzles with potent alt-rock production that strips away a few layers of the band's eardrum-rupturing sound. Instead, guitars and horns craft a new texture to the Machine's music ("Queen of Peace," "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful," "What Kind of Man").

While "Ship to Wreck," "Various Storms & Saints," and "Third Eye" prove that she can still live up to the vocal belts delivered on older tracks such as "Cosmic Love" and "Spectrum," Welch has learned some restraint. Promotional single "St. Jude" was the grand debut of her new technique; her vocals float over quiet sustained keys in the personal hymn. She also treads delicately on the sultry and mysterious "Long & Lost." Her hushed cries are complimented by some glimpses of her rarely-heard falsetto as she ponders, "Is it too late to come on home? / Are all those bridges now old stone? / Is it too late to come on home? / Can the city forgive? I hear its sad song."

Introspection is the underlying theme of most tracks on this record. In place of the constant metaphoric allusions to death and otherworldly spirits that Welch used to hide behind, she now exposes every emotion and angle of herself through melodramatic narratives. From the regret of destroying everything that she owned and loved ("Ship to Wreck") to the post-breakup feeling of abandonment ("Long & Lost"), her lyrics are frank but leave a little space for her imagination to run wild. At times, she becomes brutally honest with how she spent her time away from the spotlight: "Don't touch the sleeping pills, they mess with my head" and "Another drink just to pass the time."

Lead single "What Kind of Man" is one of Welch's most emotionally-charged pieces to date; aggression resonates in every note. "To let me dangle at a cruel angle / Oh, my feet don't touch the floor / Sometimes you're half in and then you're half out / But you never close the door," Welch shouts in agony. She broke her foot during an electric main stage performance at the first weekend of Coachella, the holy grail of the American summer festival circuit, and was forced to perform the rest of the band's promotional appearances in April and May seated. Despite her confinement, she was still overtaken with colossal energy as she ripped through these painstaking lyrics - including the ironic lines, "I was on a heavy tip / Trying to cross a canyon on a broken limb."

Despite the progress she has made emotionally, Welch transfers back to her position as a mythological storyteller a few times; on "Queen of Peace," she alludes to a fable of fortresses and kings while telling her own tale, and on the sprawling, psychedelic album closer "Mother," she channels her own spirituality in a time of loss and confusion. More connections to a higher power and Christianity are speckled through the record, most obviously on "St. Jude" and "Delilah." The former begs for "the patron saint of the lost causes" to fix a broken relationship, which is compared to the monstrous storm (nicknamed the St. Jude storm) that impacted Europe in 2013. Meanwhile, "Delilah" parallels characters from the Biblical story of betrayal to Welch and her partner: "It's a different kind of danger and my feet are spinning around / Never knew I was a dancer till Delilah showed me how."

The record recounts multiple stories from a few turbulent, eye-opening years for Welch, but it also acts as a medium for her to cope and regroup. Glimmers of exuberance can be heard in the midst of the chaos, as if the record celebrates the end of the mayhem. While Welch references drug misuse and false hope in "Delilah," unfortunate lyrical backgrounds are masked with carefree production and another display of her falsetto. The energizing "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful" is just as the expansive as the saturated Los Angeles sky that inspired it; blaring horns and driving guitars offer a lush backdrop underneath Welch's powerhouse vocal display.

Welch abandons her self-control and rips through "Third Eye" like a freight train through the dead of night. The song is arguably one of the Machine's most buoyant selections to date; its uplifting production and sweeping, layered choruses parallel its optimistic lyrics: "Hey, look up / You don't have to be a ghost hidden amongst the living / You are flesh and blood and you deserve to be loved and you deserve what you are given." Oppositely, the forlorn sound of "Various Storms & Saints" masks the messages of hope that Welch gives to her listeners - or herself: "While all around you the buildings sway / You sing it out loud, 'Who made us this way?' / I know you're bleeding, but you'll be okay / Hold on to your heart, you'll keep it safe / Hold on to your heart, don't give it away."

It's no wonder Florence Welch is a changed woman; between the band's last LP and this one, she was torn to pieces and had to put herself back together again. No longer is she consumed by death, drowning, and the afterlife; she now wears her heart on her sleeve, unabashed by her human emotions. She has learned to place her voice on a leash and to allow it to work its magic only on her cue. As she introduced "Ship to Wreck" to the crowd at Coachella 2015, she said, "Even though all of that disastrous stuff happened, I got this song out of it. So, whatever happens to you tonight, whatever you say or do - don't regret it, because something good will happen in the end." Not only did Welch get one good song out of her misadventures, but also one brilliant album.

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful will be released June 2, 2015 under Island Records. Standard and deluxe pressings will be available, and exclusive bonus tracks can be found on special editions sold at Target department stores.

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