Three summers ago, Florence and the Machine’s debut album Lungs hit the charts, and after months of buzz it didn’t fail to deliver: it is a beautiful, graceful and atmospheric album full of swirling harps and violins, grandiose tribal drumbeats, and Florence Welch’s soaring vocals sewn in. It became one of my favourite albums of the year.
Now, Florence is a rare play for me. She became a classic symptom of overplay, a regular fixture on mainstream radio with six singles released from the album – nearly half of the 13-track record – and countless re-releases of the LP with differing ‘bonus’ tracks. It was all too much, and her music began to sound tired.
Yet that initial emotion she evoked remains, as the release of her new sophomore album Ceremonials evokes a tinge of anticipation in me. The release of first single ‘Shake It Out’ further quenched my thirst. A big bombast wall of sound and singing: it’s an immediate crowd pleaser. Florence was always at her most commanding when she was singing, wailing even, those repetitive choruses of “You’ve got the love” and “The dog days are over”, and this song follows this closely with its refrain “Shake it out/Shake it out/Ooh woaaah!”
In fact, ‘Shake It Out’ might be Florence’s best single yet, steering away from her over-reliance on gloomy percussion and ambient strings, with her voice becoming the main instrument of the song – the gothic church organ and bells very much in second.
The buzz single ‘What the Water Gave Me’, a song inspired by the suicide of Virginia Woolf, is the perfect comedown from ‘Shake It Out’, with Welch showing how her vocals can still retain their power when against a softer and poignant song. It’s a delicate balance of ghostly vocals, ethereal strings and pop — more Siouxsie and the Banshees than those inevitable Adele comparisons.
It’s all a false dawn though. From that point onwards the album fails to lift off, with no other big moments. That’s not to say that the album disappoints, but it heads into a quieter, more emotive direction. ‘Never Let Me Go’ goes down well, full of drama and pomp with theatrical drumbeats and piano closely fitted around the double-layer Welch vocals. ‘Breaking Down’ tries a more electro pop approach, whilst ‘Lover to Lover’ has lyrics more suited to an outright pop song by Kate Nash. Indeed, by track seven and second single ‘No Light, No Light’, the album has lost its steam and heads into monotony.
Yet, Florence pick themselves up with their return to more adventurous and dark sounds. Certainly, it seems no coincidence that Ceremonials was released on Halloween, with its organic haunting sounds of dark baroque cathedrals and the rhythmic chorals.
‘Seven Devils’ is perhaps a bit too melodramatic, with its corny backing music sounding like a theme park’s haunted house; but at least it’s different. ‘Heartlines’ is fast-paced, with a turbulent rhythm sounding like Lykke Li, whilst ‘Spectrum’ has that characteristic Florence sound with changes in tempo, delicate strings and booming drums throughout, but works without sounding old — songs that explode without an explosion. Album closer ‘Leave My Body’, with a backing gospel-based response, is simple yet clever.
The album is melodic and at times beautiful, but in the end lacks the real punch needed, as Florence fails to steer away from her comfort zone and, in the end, just begins to become a bit tedious – all Florence needs to do is ‘shake it out’ just a little bit more.