Florence and the Machine deliver a stunning debut in the wake of overwhelming expectations.
It’s official; we’re heading for the end times. Look at the signs: the economy is shattered, Michael Jackson is dead, Blur is back together, and, somehow, Lungs is brilliant. Because, really, it shouldn’t be. After all, we’ve seen the cycle before. A band comes along with a couple brilliant singles and a follow-up that inevitably disappoints. That initial buzz sputters out as quickly as it started, and a promising musician heads back to the corners of the interwebs, cranking out singles that the world treats with polite indifference.
Maybe that’s because it’s so hard to sustain the raw excitement of those initial tracks in the face of incredible expectations; say, for example, featuring on the NME Awards tour, or winning a critics choice award at the Brits. To do so requires more than just a great songwriter, stellar vocals, and musical talent. It requires a level of commitment that most young newcomers would balk at before retreating to the comforts of sexting and iPhones, or whatever young people do these days.
Luckily, Florence is not like most newcomers. Really, she’s not like anyone. Some key details first: Florence is Florence Welsh, a self-described pretty pale girl, and the Machine are one brilliant backing band. But they are a backing band, because this is Florence’s show. And what a show it is. Just that voice, the one heard many months ago coming from absolutely nowhere, a mix of jazz and folk and blue-eyed soul like nothing in a long time. Or rather, like everything. Lungs is a vast jumble of influences, from Kate Bush and Tori Amos to UK electronica (on the Source/Candi Staton cover “You’ve Got the Love”), with Florence’s voice taking on most of the work.
But before going on, we’ve got to deal with “Kiss with a Fist", Florence’s first single and still one of her best. I admit that when I first heard “Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up)", single number three, it sounded like a retreat, an admission that nothing could match the scruffy brightness of that first effort. But on further listening, “Kiss with a Fist” feels more like the most traditional number on an album straining to be something new.
That’s not to say that it’s a bad number. It’s obviously brilliant. It’s a pitch-perfect pop song in the KT Tunstall vein, with Florence sneering her way into our hearts. But just look at the haunting menace of “Drumming Song", the sheer ambition of “Cosmic Love", the celebratory pop of “Hurricane Drunk". This is an artist you can’t pin down, can’t demand anything from because, like all the greats, she knows how to surprise your expectations. “If you could only see / the beast you’ve made of me," she snarls on “Howl". Anyone who’s come across this redheaded waif in the papers and made their snap judgments needs to hear just how brutal, how brilliant, and how sexy, she can really be.
Of course, this is still a debut, so it might be a little premature to crown Ms. Welch the best thing to happen to British pop since Lily Allen. Like that the titular creature on “Rabbit Heart", it’d be all-too-easy to frighten her away and send her back to the bizarrely beautiful place she came from. And, yes, she might not be the most versatile singer out there (her operatic voice tends to swing from melodramatic to melancholy, and that’s about it). But for an artist this young, on a first album, that only feels like strength. Because those pipes are big enough to shake the rain from the trees and, with an eclectic balance of genres leaning heavily towards folk and soul, she’s got enough support to make her seem powerful rather than overbearing.
Ultimately, with so many new bands scrambling to be heard amidst the din of MySpace and YouTube, with a million next big things out there, why should you spend 45 precious minutes with Florence and the Machine? Maybe because of the resigned but resilient woman singing on “I’m Not Calling You a Liar". Or because of the near-brilliant lyricism of “My Boy Builds Coffins". Or maybe because few moments in pop history have captured joy like the last 30 seconds of “The Dog Days Are Over". Because what you have, right here, is a truly rare thing -- a perfect debut. So congratulations, Florence. Now it’s time to conquer that troublesome sophomore slump. But frankly, I wouldn’t worry.