Florence + The Machine
[Rating: 3 ½ stars]
Like a banshee, the sinewy chanteuse Florence Welch wails on just about every track on the new album, Ceremonials. As in the past, Welch’s inspired singing is a rallying cry of rebirth creating her own brand of mystical poetry filled with devils and ghosts.
Florence + The Machine catapulted to worldwide fame in 2009 with the release of their debut album Lungs. That album was an amalgam of styles ranging from garage rock to stadium-filling pop. Its finest moments were the percussive and booming “Cosmic Love,” and “Dog Days Are Over.” In particular, “Dog Days,” earned Florence + The Machine airplay on TV shows made for Tweens, a sappy but popular Julia Roberts movie, and most recently an appearance alongside the pop divas of the day in a tribute to Aretha Franklin at The Grammys. Welch was clearly the standout of the group.
On the band’s sophomore effort, Ceremonials, Welch’s voice is again the showstopper, and this time it’s louder and more audacious. Her estimable alto isn’t a precision instrument used to convey subtle messages and secrets; it’s more akin to a sledgehammer, capable of inflicting blunt force trauma. Producer Paul Epworth turns everything up louder to match Welch, especially the room-shaking drums, which undoubtedly is a lot of fun. However, this relentless tactic is taken in almost every song and can mimic the sound effect of a T-Rex chasing people through Jurassic Park.
These songs are a series of gothic noir fantasies. Welch’s favorite themes of drowning, demonic possession and exorcism are the dark encasements around the heart of the album. The track “Seven Devils” uses the story of Mary Magdalene as the starting point for her metaphor, but these ominous underpinnings just serve as a distraction from the real skill at work here. Wading through the spooky attempts on these songs, listeners can find Welch longing to tell her story about transcendence.
There’s no sense in ignoring the fact that the lyrics are well worn in most places, such as, “It’s always darkest before the dawn, ” from the first single, “Shake it Out.” However, Welch’s myth-making voice imbues these lines with such raw emotive power, that without closer inspection, they almost seem like Joseph Campbell’s grand narratives.
“Shake it Out,” is a standout track—one of the most memorable of the year. It’s a rebellion against complacency, and the gospel choir backing, helps to ground Welch’s proclamations of love lost on the refrain, “It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back / So shake him off.” It’s easy to imagine an entire stadium filled with people on their feet, fists pumping and singing along trying to match Welch during the chorus.
In the verse at the center of the song, and perhaps the center of the album, she defiantly proclaims, “And I am done with my graceless heart / so tonight I’m going to cut it out and then restart.” Even with ghoulish sentiment, Welch keeps pointing towards her heart—which is what’s most at stake in her songs.
One of the few stylistic twists on Ceremonials is the piano tinged “Lover to Lover.” By transporting her unique voice back to Motown-era soul, the welcomed addition hints at what Welch would be able to accomplish by varying her inflection and injecting playfulness into her songs. It also reminds just how little risk is being taken on this album.
The choir used throughout these tracks, like those in a Greek tragedy, is most impactful on the album’s resonant closer, “Leave My Body.” Welch achingly spills out the words, “I’m going to lose my body/ I’m going to lose my mind,” while the choir echoes, “History keeps pulling me down,” followed by “Moving up to higher ground.” The album’s high point is delivered with such conviction it leaves a trail of smoke.
What’s offered on Ceremonials is solid, even a cut or two above solid. But it doesn’t move the band forward. With the volume continuously cranked to 11, the songs sometimes blur together. But even the flaws can’t hide the potential of the group. If and when Florence + The Machine begin to take more chances and even introduce subtlety to the mix, Welch’s primal scream gift that is equal parts agony and ecstasy, may transform them from a good band led by an ethereal vocalist, into something approaching transcendence.