Florence Welch is still the master of massive choruses, but on How Big How Blue, How Beautiful, she also finds restraint.
The moon, the stars, the sky, the earth, the ocean. These are the things that Florence Welch calls into battle with her -- and it’s always a battle. From Lungs onward, Welch is always fighting with demons, lovers, and lust. It’s her voice that drives Welch into earthshaking territory, of course. She’s as huge and commanding as ever on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the third album under the Florence and the Machine name, but the music that surrounds her is coupled with hints of restraint, making the record her sleekest and most gorgeous yet.
It shows restraint in comparison to the rest of Florence and the Machine's work, that is. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is still a mammoth recording next to just about anything else in 2015. Opener “Ship to Wreck” bursts into grandeur as soon as it starts, with a sweeping piano-guitar combo and rattling drums that set the stage for Welch’s first words: “Don’t touch the sleeping pills” -- not that they would do much good against the volume How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful packs, or the disastrous and consuming romances Welch details throughout the album anyways. “What Kind of Man” follows “Ship to Wreck”, opening with a gaunt organ guiding Welch’s distorted voice. At first, it seems like Welch might be trying out a creepy, down tempo pop tune in the style of FKA Twigs -- right before crunchy guitar riffs land like an anvil on top of the sound. Welch’s demanding question of “What kind of man loves like this?” is suddenly accented by an exclamation point in every syllable.
Though “Ship to Wreck”, “What Kind of Man”, and “Delilah” have massive choruses -- the type that will surely help Welch in her live arena dominance -- that let Welch experiment with more somber textures. The title track is huge in scope, but it actually builds over its five and a half minute run time, a rarity among Welch’s hits. It’s one of her most composed tracks in recent memory, with Welch recounting simple romance before jetting off into descriptions of a “man falling from space”. It’s a spiritual partner to “Cosmic Love”, with Welch evolving into some universal entity, though she retains her humanity as she rockets past the stratosphere. The dynamic control of “Various Storms and Saints” is even more stunning, with dusty guitar and occasional keyboard humming accompanying Welch for the first two minutes or so, letting focus fall on Welch’s voice. The mid-point climax only adds bass swells in the instrumental background, but Welch rises into territory that bends between roaring passion and solitude. “If you could just forgive yourself…”, she sings with the highest register of her vocal range, probably referring to herself rather than any other scorned lover.
“Various Storms and Saints” and the title track are two of the record’s most beautiful moments. For those looking for Top 40 potential, however, Welch delivers “Delilah” and “Third Eye”. “Delilah” feels like it was built on a garage rock backbone, coupled with hand-clap percussion and Welch balancing between pop and punk. Over chiming tambourine, Welch yells, “Never knew I was a dancer, ‘til Delilah showed me how”. Someone needs to make a Kevin Bacon Footloose mashup with this song, as soon as possible.
“Third Eye” is the most polished song in a record full of already shimmering tunes. Welch flips between a glorious chorus, surrounded by choir vocals, and verses filled with her roaring near spoken word affirmations. Perfectly placed horns accent Welch’s cry of “You are flesh and blood! And you deserve to be loved!” (citation needed on how many exclamation marks she uses). It’s affecting and effective; if this whole super-star singer thing doesn’t work out, Welch could make a tidy profit on the motivational speaker circuit.
With all these mammoth tunes blaring out with pride, a few songs slip to the wayside. “Long and Lost” might be a bit too bluesy and slinky for its own good, threatening to explode but never quite gaining the needed boost of energy. “Caught” follows “Long and Lost”, but it suffers from the same lack of excitement, in an album foundationally built on jittery shouts and proclamations of love.
It’s strange then, that How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’s best song is its most subdued. “St. Jude,” which should have closed the album (another minor quibble with the record is that the flow isn’t all that cohesive), stands alongside “Cosmic Love” as one of Welch’s finest to date. “St. Jude” is, at its base, just composed of an organ vamp, lightly brushed drums, and a choir of Florences backing Welch. When an oboe gently glides down next to Welch’s admission, “Maybe I’ve always been more comfortable in chaos”, it comes as a quiet revelation for Welch. Here she realizes why there’s so much excitement and heartbreak swirling around her work. “St. Jude” is a promising and fascinating piece for Welch, as the rest of her most sterling work takes the form of monstrously large songs. On “St. Jude,” and the album as a whole, Welch proves her dynamic range might become as powerful as her vocal delivery.
It should also be noted that “St. Jude” is the patron saint of lost causes. But with releases like How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Welch really doesn’t need to be bowing at that altar anymore.