During her eight years leading Florence and the Machine, Florence Welch has become an expert at turning pain into beauty. Her latest record with the band titled “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” is a monument to this emotional journey, featuring heart-wrenching vocals and grand orchestration.
The recording process for this album started after Welch took a year-long hiatus, which proved to be an emotionally tumultuous time for the lead singer and lyricist. As a result, she confessed in an interview with Zane Lowe, “[I]t’s the most personal record I’ve ever made.”
No longer relying on fantasy and metaphor, Welch has made herself vulnerable through these lyrics, which she says are about “trying to learn how to live, and how to love in the world rather than trying to escape from it.”
Though her producer Marcus Dravs prohibited extended water metaphors after “Ceremonials” (an album preoccupied with death and water which boasts the single “What the Water Gave Me”), the album opens with “Ship to Wreck,” which compares a failing relationship to a sinking ship and nightmares to great white sharks. Fans don’t seem to mind Welch’s continuing obsession with aquatic themes—“Ship to Wreck” has been getting plenty of airplay as one of the leading singles from the album. It’s no wonder, too, since the chorus showcases her distinctive voice and impressive range.
The other single from the album, “What Kind of Man,” explores another kind of toxic relationship—the on again, off again relationship you can’t help but be sucked back into every time. Welch offers the biting vocals of a woman scorned to complement the energetic rock ballad, complete with gospel-like backup vocals and guitar power chords.
The title track provides a little genre variety. It begins with bluesy keyboard chords evolving into a lively, jazz-infused rock chorus, but fades into an almost classical brass outro that the next track, “Queen of Peace,” picks up and takes in a more mellow direction.
“Various Storms and Saints” is the raw, emotional core of the album. Welch’s rhythmic voice is paired with a subdued guitar riff, strings and a chorus of backing-vocals as the orchestration and emotions build. It all culminates with her last, pleading line, “hold onto your heart,” the final note sustained with an undeniable emotional urgency.
The next track, “Delilah,” marks the album’s emergence from the darkness with major chords and an energetic, upbeat second verse. The repeated mantra, “I’m gonna be free and I’m gonna be fine,” marks Welch’s determination to find optimism with this album, and the strength and clarity in her voice makes you want to believe her.
The next tracks are both poetic meditations on the struggle to let go of lost love. But as the subdued and resigned “Long & Lost” evolves into the more vocal-driven, determined “Caught,” the tone becomes more hopeful and independent.
The transformation is complete in “Third Eye,” a soaring celebration of self-acceptance. “You are flesh and blood!” she nearly shouts, “You deserve to be loved and you deserve what you are given.” Several overlapping vocal lines, along with rolling drums and bright brass, make this track the most positive on the album.
“Mother” closes out the album with a sense of realistic optimism. The lyrics deliver the album’s message—life is complicated, but we should embrace it—before the listener is left with a minute or so of optimistic instrumentals.
Overall, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” offers a full emotional cycle with a variety of orchestration styles tied together by Florence Welch’s uniquely powerful voice. Thematically strong and musically interesting, this album offers catharsis in style.
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