Aural Impressions: Florence + the Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

My relationship with Florence Welch and her machine has been one centered around San Francisco.  Long before I lived here, long before I’d even moved to California, I wrapped her music around the memory, the feeling, the essence as I perceived it, of the City by the Bay.  From my second time in its limits, taking a trek from the Presidio across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands along with the harp-filled indie rock of Lungs, to barely five months later cruising the freeways at night to the cinematic baroque flourishes of Ceremonials, all of my fresh exposure to Florence occurred in the latter half of 2011.  It’s been a long four years — almost seems crazy how fast they’ve gone, considering everything that’s happened — since new material from this band.  What I’d heard of this new album was a distinctly upbeat mix of styles between Lungs and Ceremonials, with a noted lack of harp but no shortage of powerful vocals.  I saw Florence + the Machine live in April on the first of two nights in San Francisco preceding Coachella.  She sang a short 13 song set, nearly half of which was taken from How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.  Her energy and stage presence are undeniable, as is the talent of her massive backing band, bringing a new life and perspective into songs I’d heard only on record.  I wasn’t blown away by many of the new works, only the title track really stuck out to me at the time; insofar as the rest of the album is concerned, I’ll explain my impressions below.

  1. Ship to Wreck How Big opens in a new direction, with a spirited electric guitar riff leading into upbeat acoustic guitar strumming along with bells and a simple clean bass.  Entirely unlike Ceremonials, vastly different than Lungs.  It has a folk-y, almost country feel, but it also has those classic multi-tracked and harmonizing Florence vocals in a powerful chorus as the instrumentation chugs along.  The second verse opens up as the bass leads chiming guitar flourishes and later, a softly strummed acoustic guitar again.  A quick, major key song with introspective, questioning lyrics setting the tone for the album.  The post-bridge chorus isolates just Florence and the guitar before the song finishes with one last repeated fully instrumented refrain.  It’s hard for me not to picture her strutting and prancing back and forth across the stage at the Masonic whenever I hear this song.  The night of the show was the first time I heard the song, and as I mentioned above, wasn’t blown away… yet.
  2. What Kind of Man:  Solo Florence starts this one, dubbed with a dropped octave vocal effect as a minimal synth pad adds additional texture.  After a sad more-or-less a Capella verse about a failed relationship, background guitar enters as Florence and her octaved twin push their vocals upward.  Then, suddenly, tambourine and crunchy electric guitar cutting with doubled notes in an up and down riff, soon joined by sustained background vocals.  As the intense, fiery half-yelled lyrics repeat the anti-sentimentality of the first verse, a bass drum and a brass section loudly announce their entrance, the latter being a first for the band but certainly not a last on this album.  The second verse moves along smoother, cleaned-up guitar strumming arpeggios in place of the hard chords, which blend and morph even further as the pads move to the front during the verse’s second half.  When the chorus returns, so does the harsh, pointed guitar, forcing the percussion, and therefore the song, to stutter step along with it.  As the guitar transitions to include more release, the drums tread into Lungs territory, with clearly whacked cymbal bells and syncopated snare hits driving the song seemingly faster to the end.  It’s a powerful song, musically and lyrically, and certainly would have made a better opener.
  3. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful:  Initially released as a teaser for the album, truncated to the outro portion, the title track blew my socks off when I first heard the full version live.  Relaxed and chill to begin, a warm Rhodes piano, jazz guitar and solo vocals make me feel fuzzy and comfortable, recalling the nostalgia of other down-tempo acts.  The soothing chord progression of the chorus pre-echoes the outro teaser, which brilliantly creates an impression before it even occurs thanks to the mentioned teaser.  As the calm of the first chorus nears its end, bowed strings fall into a rock drum pattern and pushing bass.  The vocals reverb and track into the background, singing spacey lyrics with an evanescent feeling, brass sections brightly punctuating the verse.  Rhythm breaks as the chorus returns, leaving room for the brass and strings, as well as picked electric guitar.  It’s incredibly uplifting, almost alarmingly so considering the band’s past material.  As described in the lyrics, it’s a song for a bright sunny day under a blue sky.  The song’s second half is softly crooned, falsetto vocals from Florence over another acoustic guitar as brass fades in gently.  Is that dulcimer I hear there in the left channel?  When the track’s name is sung for the final time, the thus-far absent harp that made F+tM’s sound so unique is heard quietly plucking ever so briefly.  The outro brings a full brass section, strongly bellowing over a bed of deep strings.  They layer and layer over each other continuously, playing staccato ascending riffs until all that’s left are the strings to close out.  Absolutely one of my favorites from the record.  A bonus track on one of the releases includes a demo version which, while very similarly structured, dials back the intensity of the percussion, making it an even more chill down-tempo experience.  It’s quite good in its own right.
  4. Queen of Peace:  Cinematic tremolo strings flourish and dance in an almost Eastern melody until they’re rudely interrupted by a quarter on the snare and a tambourine, a very 1960s rock beat (like the drum solo from The Beatles “Birthday”).  Guitar is buried in the mix, leaving bass upfront and center to drive and support the vocals.  It tends to stay on the root, meandering a little unexpectedly as the chorus approaches.  The melodies of the chorus are layered and powerful, as the bass continues to lead the chord progression downward.  Brass and strings enter in and hurry out occasionally.  It’s lush, but straightforward.  Toward the end, the opening string riff returns to join the pre-chorus.  It’s a marching piece, steadily moving forward continuously throughout.  The lack of variation makes it seem shorter than it is; I was shocked to find it clocked in at over 5 minutes long.  I particularly love the lyric “like a boat into oblivion,” welling imagery that associates nicely with my new environment by the sea.
  5. Various Storms & Saints:  Let me just get this out of the way — the title of this song is kinda rubbish.  The song itself is not, however.  Only a reverberating electric guitar picking minor chords is played along with Florence’s ethereal vocals.  It’s dark and moody, at one point including a single forceful strum of the guitar, as well as beautiful falsetto singing.  The chorus seems to borrow the melody and vocal structure from “My Boy Builds Coffins,” one of the strongest nearly direct callbacks to Lungs-era F+tM on this record.  Strings accompany the chorus and verses to add atmosphere to the already stripped-back song.  A crescendo distorts the guitar and brings up the strings before a sustained high note from Florence fades out the track.  Another simple, minimal, tone-setting piece between the excitement of the songs around it; it’s basically the Feast for Crows of this record.
  6. Delilah:  Beginning with piano and hurried vocals, responded by a backing chorus of additional Florences, this initially sounds like a not-so-distant major key relative of “Seven Devils.”  That is, until Florence urgently falsettos a la any number of 90s female singer-songwriters; immediately and without transition, danceably moving drums and bass enter.  What was once slow with an undercurrent of tension now has exploded with new life; the backing vocals become more agitated and passionate, later effecting a similar disposition from the lead.  It’s one of the more energetic songs on the album, eventually breaking into a bridge featuring a single continually picked note bass underneath a rising piano chord progression and background vocals.  It’s reminiscent of … something … I can’t quite put a finger on it yet.  At the conclusion of the bridge, the refrain is repeated with decidedly more deliberate, slower drums one time, then again with the previous energetic beat.
    “Delilah” closes with Florence stressfully singing her falsetto verse one last time.  No doubt a standout track, familiar yet in new territory.
  7. Long & Lost:  Quiet atmosphere, simple piano and a jazzily strummed guitar in a minor key set the tone for a soft and longing verse.  Soon, sparingly used and deep drums kick in, ghost-like background vocals fill the space and bass pushes around a warm progression.  It’s another moody track, hitting low notes in the chorus in a comforting, frisson-inducing flow.  I will want to figure this one out on the piano and dissect its substance; to understand why exactly it works so well for me.  The second verse’s vocals are loftier, angelic and, lyrically, very sad.  It’s minimal, haunting, and effective.  One of my favorites.
  8. Caught:  Chanted vocalizations and moving bass with heavily processed tremolo piano again remind me of someone else’s sound, the vocals are almost Enya-like, where as the piano diverges into an Andrew McMahon-solo-career realm.  It’s a slow jam with excessive reverb and a simple progression.  The “oohs” of the intro and the bridge, where they’re featured basically a Capella, are sure to linger in the listener’s mind, especially as they continue over the repeated outro chorus.  It’s one of the more unremarkable songs on the album in my point, beginning a cluster of misses on an otherwise solid album, in my opinion.
  9. Third Eye:  Ooh-ah, ooh-ah, an original lifeline.  I don’t know what this song reminds me of, perhaps something from the 1980s, but I don’t really like it.  This was played at the show I attended and even then I was not very impressed.  The instrumentation builds from quick piano chords to include layered vocals and percussion.  The melody and lyrics are shouted and anthemic, encouraging and targeted for a different demographic than mine.  To draw from other pieces I’ve written, this is the “A Sky Full of Stars” of this album, a total shift in mood in an unanticipated direction that to me doesn’t gel or fit in with the rest of the collection.  The “ooh-ah original lifeline” line is repeated frequently, almost excessively.  Like a broken crutch, the song can probably stand on its own better without it.  The bridge introduces a strange progression produced by a piano bass-line, eventually leading to what sounds like a guitar/ukelele hybrid playing over the same initial percussion.  Until then, it’s nearly generic pop.  The bridge is a little more fresh, but it doesn’t last, shifting back to the chorus where all of the song’s elements are superimposed on each other.  It’s not bad, by any standard, but it’s easily the worst on the album.
  10. St Jude:  Heartbeat kicks and organ, minimal and brooding.  Vocals are more or less a Capella again, until the background chant of “St Jude” enters.  With the chords changing beneath, the chant becomes dissonant to my ear as its falsetto pitch remains constant.  It remains throughout the choruses, an element I’d prefer wasn’t there.  High-attack bass pulls itself into the verses, along with a clarinet or oboe that appeared somewhere during the chorus.  It’s a floating, pretty song, but it doesn’t build much past what the bass brings.  Fortunately, it’s not terribly long, nor does it end the album on a down note.
  11. Mother:  This is more like it.  The first four times I listened to this song, I was walking and boy, is it a song to briskly jaunt to.  Funky, with a tremolo guitar and downtempo, summery feel.  Bass comes in at the second verse, stylistically it’s an exact match to a band like Zero 7 or Air.  Rapid snares transition into the chorus, a pounding sonic cry with stadium-sized vocals, amazing lyrics, loud guitars, and drums that feature a ride cymbal bell, like the best tracks on Lungs alluded to above.  Frantically struck toms transition between the lines, before the verses continue their downbeat ways, with meandering, quick bass, and echoing tremolo guitar.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to proffer that a little key change here and there and you’ve got the ingredients for the theme to Better Call Saul, especially as additional overdubbed guitar comes in the second verse.  In place of a second chorus comes a wave of fuzz and downshifting progression.  It’s an extended outro with bell-filled drums, distorted guitar, what might be an organ, and spacey atmospheric vocals and strings.  To top it off, Florence adds an airy, swirling, otherworldly melody above it all before it all comes crashing down, distortion and fuzz fading the record out.  Easily the best closer since Lungs, and if it’s an indication of the future, I look forward to F+tM’s next downtempo album.

At first listen, I didn’t know what to make of this album as the crucial third member of Florence + the Machine’s discography.  There are songs that are completely out of left field; others that nearly plagiarize their own material.  Plenty of upbeat attention grabbers balanced by a handful of slower, moodier pieces.  There is almost none of the trademark harp, a vacancy I sorely miss.  Its absence is stark in comparison to previous works, the unfortunate shedding of part of what made this band so unique to begin with.  That said, it’s definitely a more lean, less bombastic outing than Ceremonials, and once its surrounding nostalgia is cleared, I think it might be an improvement over that one.  It includes far more guitar, especially of the jazzy and clean style that was missing from her baroque pop period.  The ferocity, passion, and tongue-in-cheek humor of Lungs is kept at a distance for the most part, but that’s not to say a track like “What Kind of Man” isn’t in the same company.  The best tracks from this album are as good as anything from Lungs, especially the outstanding title track.  The worst tracks, unfortunately, fail both previous albums in my opinion — luckily there are only one or two of those.  It’s a solid album, and one that I will probably continue to listen to almost exclusively over the next few days.  Those tracks that hit me in the feelings do it so well, it’s hard to think that they’ll ever be unable to deliver after repeated listens.  Now, I just have to mentally and emotionally connect this album to San Francisco and the Pacific and I’ll be golden.

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