As a loyal fan of the band, I could not have anticipated Florence + the Machine’s new album more. Following the release of the single, What Kind of Man, I counted down the days until the album would be released in its entirety. I certainly was not disappointed. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (HBHBHB) represents a step further along the journey into this talent’s complicated personality. With their debut album, Lungs, we were met with musical expressionism in the form of mysticism and loud beating drums; in Ceremonials, the expression became more spiritual thanks to the allusions to religion, sin, and reconciliation. HBHBHB, on the other hand, is a more intimate and volatile record that seems to permit a more insistent focus on front-woman Florence Welch. This is illustrated by the album cover which features the name “Florence” unaccompanied whilst “+ the Machine” is placed at the back.
Fans of Florence’s previous albums will remember them both having calm opening numbers: the staccato harps in Dog Days Are Over and the scattered piano scales in Only If for a Night guided us serenely in. With HBHBHB, Florence greets us with the loud, sharp Ship to Wreck, which forces us to pay attention. This first song reminds us that Florence + The Machine are still an indie rock band. Following the successes of Calvin Harris’ remix of Spectrum from Ceremonials (the band’s first number one single) and Sweet Nothing from Harris’ 18 Months, it appeared that Florence was becoming more of a pop star than an indie prominence. However, after a single listen of Ship to Wreck, it is easy to see that they have returned to their valued roots.
The next track, What Kind of Man, starts with a mesmerising performance by Florence, who is accompanied by a deep, demonic harmony. The intro lyrics confess of a tormented, helpless protagonist (“I was on a heavy tip / Trying to cross a canyon with a broken limb”) who returns to a vacant partner (“You were on the other side / Like always, wondering what to do with life”). The introduction is then disturbed by a crude guitar riff, indicating that this is an angry piece.
After the two first songs, we are met with the title track: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Although this wasn’t one of my favourite tracks, I very much respected its merits, particularly the elaborate trumpet score, which felt like a welcome addition to Florence’s repertoire of instruments. In interviews, Florence compared the trumpet outro to “how it feels to fall in love,” which explains why it sounds like a great deal of work was put into the score. This song indicates excellent musical artistry from the score writers, rather than it being an extra reminder of Florence’s lyrical prowess.
HBHBHB can be seen as quite a dark, melancholic album. After the third track, the listener is met with sombre numbers that appear to represent Florence’s attempt to return to reality after a volatile period in her life; she has alluded to this in interviews about this album. Queen of Peace, possibly my favourite song on the album, is anything but peaceful. Its momentous string opening is suddenly over-powered by a drumbeat that leads to hauntingly beautiful imagery of a king, prince, and queen who are helpless, suffering, and on the verge of accepting defeat. The album continues with this theme of intimate confessions, with Various Storms and Saints, which has an introduction that could easily be mistaken for a Nancy Sinatra number. The weeping lead guitar acts as an extra strong character next to Welch. However, Florence’s striking vocal performance shows how the singer does not always need to provide the power and volume that she usually does; she can still steal the show with a calm and gentle voice.
Despite the number of soft and seemingly forlorn tracks on this album, the record overall is not necessarily sad. The band add random bursts of energy and excitement throughout. The wickedly catchy Delilah incites an itching desire to dance, once the drum beat and bass are summoned while Third Eye is reminiscent of the exquisite harmonies that were so abundant in Lungs, and features a staccato piano similar to the harp opener in Dog Days Are Over.
When I saw that the final track was entitled Mother, I immediately feared that Florence may have decided to cover John Lennon’s harrowing Plastic Ono Band opener. Thankfully, she provides us with an upbeat original, pleading for a chance of rebirth (“Mother make me / Make me a big tall tree / So I can shed my leaves / And let them blow through me”). This is a refreshing finale, as the album frequently alludes personal struggles that Florence may have experienced. The fact that she ends with an optimistically, indicating that she is ready to try again, is nothing but pleasing.
Like any fan, I feared that Florence + The Machine might not deliver to their usual superlative standards - I should have trusted them. Out just in time for the summer months, this album is a brilliant addition to the playlist, especially the more upbeat numbers that will very easily get stuck in your head. For long-time fans, this album shows how the band have exponentially matured since Lungs. HBHBHB is more frank and honest, though the signature mysticism and sophisticated symbolism that sets Florence + The Machine apart from the rest, remains.