In 2015 Florence and the Machine sailed through the tricky third album with the well received How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. The album was different, but it still had that distinctly Florence thread weaved throughout. After stepping in for the Foo Fighters at Glastonbury, if they weren’t already, the band became a household name. Returning three years later with High As Hope arguably put Florence and the band in a difficult position; play it safe and appeal to the increasing audience, or continue to artistically progress, risking upset from radio listeners.
Thankfully, Florence certainly didn’t play it too safe with the latest release. Whilst High As Hope is far from an avant-garde curveball, it has certainly tiptoed away from the upbeat orchestral pop of Dog Days Are Over or Shake It Out. Welch has taken a slight detour down an avenue with a darker sound, deeper lyrics and a raw production. But Florence has continued to stay relevant, noteworthy and interesting, a challenge that many artists struggle with.
The greatest change of all is in the instrumentation and production of the album. Many of her most well known songs are light but rich, colourful yet precise. Although Welch has experimented with a range of genres and styles, there has generally been a sense of playfulness, songs that can be played at summer parties and on road-trips. Whilst this isn’t entirely left behind, there generally is a great change in tone and style. Take lead single Sky Full Of Song for example. Its power is in its bareness which compliments the vulnerability of Florence’s voice. A dark sense of isolation lingers throughout and places a great contrast to the most familiar of her older songs.
This change however is not such a negative, but a constructive and positive step forward continuing Florences’ already established diversity. Big God continues with the overcast and dramatic instrumentation. Opening with a low and heavy piano, this foundation built on with some typical Jamie xx style effects, Big God alludes towards an operetta in its theatrical production. Guest features by Sampha on Grace build on this. Whilst the tone here is quite distinct, the instrumental structure is quite similar; a sparse introduction with just a piano and Welch’s vocal. However, unlike previous releases, neither song has a thunderous or dirty chorus. Although there are moments of depth and layer, High As Hope feels more mature in its overall sound, with more precise, distinct and effective performances.
Vocally, there is little up for dispute. Florence delivers exactly what you expect of her, pleasantly in places a little more, and fortunately nothing less. There are brief moments where I hoped her voice would (or could) be pushed a smidgen further, to add an extra layer of awe and surprise, but overall there is little scope for disappointment. Welch has one of the most distinct and impressive voices of all contemporary artists and sometimes, less can also be more. Florence also plays to this by softening her voice in places, such as on The End Of Love, complimenting the more natural tone of the album. High As Hope reveals a new side of Florence, whilst still showcasing her raw power, a vulnerability is expressed, keeping her latest release fresh.
Lyrically, High As Hope provides the most personal and poignant moments from Welch so far. Grace perhaps is the finest example of this. A song to her younger sister, Grace recites Welch’s lowest and most selfish moments, recalling Florence’s more experimental times with walls melting and the presence of mermaids everywhere; an allusion to drug consumption ruining her younger sisters birthday. Grace also talks of Florence trying to make her mouther proud and hints at her dyslexia. So candidly discussing these imperfections is what makes Grace so perfect. Watching Florence serenely leap around the biggest stages in the world makes it difficult to realise sometimes that she is of course just like you and I, human, and naturally flawed. Much the same can also be said for South London Forever. The opening in particular pinpoints The Joiners Arms, a pub Florence used to attend, and her evenings ‘with the art students and the boys in bands high on E and holding hands with someone that I just met’. The lack of mysterious metaphor leaves a refreshingly understandable and relatable lyric that is both honest and straightforward. Whilst critics may argue the album is too personal in places, as an established name, these pinpoints provide an interesting insight into the life behind the name.
As a fan of Florence, this was an anticipated release and one which hasn’t disappointed. Dare I say it, Florence for me is a more contemporary, approachable and mainstream silhouette of the mesmerising Kate Bush. By pushing the boundaries of modern pop music, vocally, musically and in places lyrically, Welch is almost replicating the skills of Bush, albeit with far more confined boundaries, thus allowing a greater appeal for the radio and to festivals. In the swamp of uninventive sell-out music charts, Florence has remained refreshing. At the core, Florence and the Machine are an “indie” rock band, yet Welch’s ability to appeal across the board has made her a global star. High As Hope may test some of her fans, but it will certainly keep them intrigued. Comparatively to her previous releases, High As Hope is neither better nor worse than any of them. Personally, I rate all four albums roughly equally. They all have something slightly different to offer, all with their strengths and weaknesses. Whether Florence will continue down this slight detour is a mystery, but if she does, the future will certainly be interesting.