Playing an unplugged show is always a dicey prospect. The artists put themselves out there before an unforgiving audience, exposed without the safety net of their electric instrumentation to fall back on. It’s a hit-or-miss affair, turning one’s trademark sound inside-out. For a group like Florence + the Machine, the risks are exceptionally high, but as they display on MTV Unplugged, the rewards they serve through their masterfully reworked songs were worth the gamble.
The group’s studio recordings are largely defined by their bombast and lush arrangements. Their unique aesthetic balances Florence Welch’s delicacy with her fierceness, and while much of her oeuvre is conducive to a stripped-down approach, there was the danger that the vulnerability would crumble without the tempering of her orchestral support, that her passion would give way to histrionics. Thankfully, the group for the most part avoids succumbing to such pitfalls.
The acoustic performance serves as a showcase for Welch’s voice, a rarity in that it is as technically proficient (an understatement) as it is emotionally engaging. The ten-member choir, the Voices of Rivers, floats behind her, echoing a Gregorian chant or flitting about like an aural apparition, crafting the chamber pop atmosphere. The band’s gothic inclinations are at the fore here, the subdued vibe and skeletal instrumentation -— piano, harp, guitar, violin, drums -— bolstering the Nico-esque spookiness. In particular, Welch’s fixation with water is at its most fluid and engulfing, the music evocative of the surf sweeping in and carrying the listener away in an undertow. The finest display of this is in “Never Let Me Go”, a tale of either resignation or resilience, the refrain breaking like a wave then flowing back out to sea.
Following the lead of the most successful Unplugged performances, Welch and crew don’t attempt to lazily force their songs into an acoustic palette. Rather, they reinterpret each one, imparting them with new life and resonance. “Drumming Song” may be the most drastic and successful retooling, opening with Welch’s unaccompanied voice. The piece is downright chilling, the piano’s rhythm supplanting the titular instrument, building an anxious tension.
“Cosmic Love” also is a complete switching of gears. In this minimalistic setting, it ceases to be a rousing anthem and becomes a wholly more intimate experience. The impact of the formerly belted-out chorus (“No dawn, no day / I’m always in this twilight / In the shadow of your heart”) is amplified by being reduced to a plaintive croon.
Welch’s choice of covers is of particular interest, showing her skills as an interpreter isn’t limited to her own songs. The standard “Try a Little Tenderness” has the quality of Jeff Buckley’s approach to covers, yet the quirkiest (and most fun) track is certainly “Jackson”, penned by Jerry Leiber and Billy Edd Wheeler but popularized by Johnny Cash and June Carter. Josh Homme ventures from his Stone Age throne to duet with Welch, his own distinctive, cocksure vocals greatly complimenting those of his singing partner. The only downside of the song is that it is so short; it will certainly leave fans hoping for a future pairing of the two.
The lone misstep of the record is the rendition of “No Light, No Light”. It simply takes too long to get where it’s going, the song lumbering rather than steadily mounting in intensity. What should be a satisfying exorcism of simmering demons is lost. The piece simply needs the clanging drums and chugging rhythm its studio version is built upon.
This one blemish aside, Florence + the Machine’s performance deserves its spot in the upper echelon of MTV Unplugged shows.
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