Florence Welch flourishes in drama. Her piercing shrieks and quavery voice accentuate her elaborate emotions and they’re on full display on the very aptly titled How Big How Blue How Beautiful. If that sounds like a dramatic way of saying Florence + The Machine likes their music big, that’s because the band’s third album repels the notion of smallness and this fondness for big is infectious.
On their previous album Ceremonials, Florence + The Machine showed up on pop radio with its frontwoman garbed in shimmering dresses, singing about a metaphorical demon wanting its own pound of flesh. Their sophomore album had Florence Welch thriving in ornate sounds, wearing gowns, chanting pop hymns about gloom and doom, backed by organs, violins, thunders, and the results were often divine. This was perhaps the reason why certain music producers for films summoned Florence every time they had a need for soundtrack that could conjure images of vampires, an evil stepmother, devils and, in a rare instance, a poor little rich man.
This time, Flo and company trade opulence for ebullience. First single “What Kind of Man”, with its head-bangy guitar riffs, turns down the gloom and cranks up the anger (or something resembling it). It begins with a haunting verse which lays the foundation of her feelings for a thirst trap-setting man, and transitions to an explosive sass towards the ‘holy fool all colored blue’ who let her ‘dangle at a cruel angle’. It’s the perfect mood-setter for an album that is so conflicted about what it wants to do with all that it’s feeling.
“Queen of Peace”, one of the album’s several stunners, would not sound out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie, maybe in a scene where the revenge-seeking heroine unleashes the full extent of her displeasure at all the wrong kinds of men, although the song is about something else entirely. It is followed by the majestic “Various Storms and Saints” which is as close to touching Ceremonials highlight, “Never Let Me Go” in solemnity and greatness. With solo backing vocals by Florence herself, the song builds up the tension, soars, and then crescendos to a thrilling finish, as she battles an inner turmoil of the heart and head.
But it’s never just despair with Florence. On “Third Eye”, The Machine sneaks in a ukulele that takes center stage just before Florence gets hysterical and chants ‘I’m the same, I’m the same, I’m trying to change!’. It’s the sort of life-affirming song that screams rather than pander to your sensitive soul (‘Hey, look up! Don’t make a shadow of yourself, always shutting out the light. Caught in your own creation. Look up, look up!’).
Breaking the album’s string of strong tracks is “Long & Lost” which is not the most interesting example of what a Florence Welch-Ester Dean collaboration could sound. “St. Jude” is yet another baffling choice for a single, although it’s only ‘promotional’.
In the brief pre-performance interview with Good Morning America, when asked what the album means to her, Florence very charmingly hesitates for a moment and says that it is hard to describe, and that its meaning changed as she went along recording it. But what is certain is that it would be fantastic to have the band come out with a break-up album, not just because most break-up albums tend to be great, showered with a minimum of 5 Grammys in a single ceremony, but because Florence Welch could probably do remorseful, berserk, and lonely in the span of one LP and cover the entire spectrum of emotions associated with the devastation that comes with heartache, and end up sounding triumphant. Florence is clearly not over rhapsodizing about water, and here she takes the fascination further. And like water, Florence’s voice and presence are otherworldly elements, a ‘place where emotion chaotically reigns.’ In this album, all that chaos reign beautifully.