Florence + The Machine are unique in modern popular music. This deserves to be heard as an album, with each song offering something new and all tied together by Welch’s unstoppable voice.
Maybe it’s because of the woman’s name on the marquee, maybe it’s her versatile vocals, or maybe it’s her flexible interpretations of alternative rock, but since her debut, comparisons of Florence Welch to Kate Bush (and surely Annie Lennox at some point by someone) have been omnipresent. It is a great shame. Modern mainstream listeners do not listen to Kate Bush. And that is fine. Because Florence Welch, along with her band (The Machine) and everyone involved in the writing and producing, is really good. So good that with their latest album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, she will become the new “Kate Bush”. There isn’t any artist like her on the same mainstream level. Male, female, solo, band, full scale orchestra.
Opening is the spritely ‘Ship To Wreck’, which is a good song as a single. But on the album it’s a statement of intent. Listening back to it, it feels like the eponymous ship she has built is this album. Something daring and risky. So she gets daring. With the upbeat and relentless melody of the song, Welch is daring you not to enjoy the album. The lyrics are daring you to pull it down. Then she follows it up with ‘What Kind Of Man’. It is brilliant, punchy, and far from vulnerable – the chorus asks again and again “what kind of man loves like this?” in a furious challenge of masculine pretensions. About as subtle as Fall Out Boy, as much fun as they are, made unique by Welch’s evocative lyrics and incredible voice.
These two elements are key to every song of the album. The intimate ‘Long & Lost’ hangs on Welch’s voice and an electric guitar. It sees her hit incredibly high notes, not yet heard on the album, or maybe ever in the studio. Because of the slightness of the musical style, it’s easy to miss the craft, especially compared to her earlier work. Yet there is huge ambition in something so simple. ‘St. Jude’ is not as simple, but it has the same heartfelt lyrics, with impressive rhythmic dexterity to them. The slower tracks on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful are not dark like ‘Seven Devils’ of Ceremonials, and they aren’t bolstered by mysticism, as with ‘My Boy Builds Coffins’ from Lungs. They are lyrically refined, yet raw, and delivered with passion.
These are small moments in an album which ranges across different styles: raucous pop, punchy rock, into soulful, jazzy territories, taking from everywhere to create something different from anything else being offered by other artists. The quieter, slower songs are part of the album’s flow. They are reversals to keep things different, and they work. Although the reversals happen in song as well. Album closer ‘Mother’ begins on a funky, almost Jungle-esque guitar note that lures in the listener. It’s a seductive rhythm that clears a path, because when the chorus kicks in you need the room to punch the air. Euphoric and brilliant, the culmination of Welch’s apparent statement of intent with the album: do different things musically, steal from everywhere. It roots in all the lyrics and her voice. Not to get bogged down trying to reclaim the folksy Lungs, or to make self-consciously brooding and dark songs.
Even so, the Kate Bush comparisons will never stop. She invites them: almost literally on ‘Third Eye’, which feels a lot like ‘Hounds of Love’. It is a relentlessly positive song, but just different enough to not be a pop record. Welch has long existed in a bizarre interspace between rock, pop, folk and soul. Unlike some bands who seem determined to refine their styles to just one genre by this point in their own careers, she refuses to leave that space. She has quite simply changed her approach for the better with her third album, without abandoning her signature style.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was released via Island Records on 1st June.