Photo: Vincent Haycock

Florence and the Machine Show the Universality of Pain and Vulnerability on ‘High As Hope’

High as Hope dials down Florence and the Machine's trademark theatrics to forge a vulnerable and visceral musical achievement.

High as Hope
Florence and the Machine
Republic / Virgin EMI
29 June 2018

High As Hope is Florence and the Machine’s most accomplished album to date. The band’s latest release brims with seriously catchy hooks, powerhouse vocals, and immersive music. Fans hear the familiar anguish and dismay but this time Florence Welch turns inward to find inspiration from introspection. Welch wrote, produced, and recorded most of the album in solitude. Several tracks demonstrate the standpoint of a person who has withdrawn from outside pressures to reflect on her own awareness. Other tracks long for finding a place of emotional reckoning. As such, High As Hope dials down Florence and the Machine’s trademark theatrics to forge a vulnerable and visceral musical achievement.

Melancholy and self-doubt are entrenched within the album, elements listeners admired in earlier releases. But this time, Welch centralizes personal reflection while placing the onus on her own troubles and triggers. “Hunger” begins with the poignant lyric, “At 17 I started to starve myself / I thought that love was a kind of emptiness.” The lyrics and the track in its entirety show the problematic and destructive mindset associated with self-loathing. As the song continues, Welch sings, “Don’t let them get you down / You’re the best thing I’ve seen” reaffirming the album’s major theme: harm is not a form of love.

“Hunger” in particular demonstrates how the act of pain and love collide in other parts of her life. For Welch, the persona of Florence and the Machine and the music profession are equally calamitous even though they also form a source of love and inspiration. When she sings “I thought that love was on a stage giving myself to strangers / You don’t have to be afraid / Then it tries to find a home, but people know when I’m alone / Picking it apart.” Here Welch expresses her well-documented anxiety about criticism and the fear associated with the exposure of being a public figure. Yet all the while knowing that music is her life force. Ruminating lead to clarity but not without first untangling all the paradoxes.

High As Hope contemplates the regret attenuated by nostalgia’s shadow. Welch remembers fighting her father in “Sky Full of Song” and in “Grace” she goes further to examine repentance when she sings “I’m sorry I ruined your birthday / I guess I could go back to university try and make my mother proud / Stop this phase I’m in…” This uncertainty is thematic across Florence and the Machine’s repertoire, but it’s truly sad to see her spinning in a mind where value and self-worth are elusive. Despite her creative strength, Welch denies giving herself the credit she deserves thereby avoiding the narcissism associated with fame.

Whereas High As Hope is lyrically introspective, the music doesn’t necessarily align as it is upbeat. Heavy downbeats and a melody laden with robust percussion carry each track. High As Hope is musically safe likely due to the subdued art pop grandeur heard in previous Florence and the Machine’s albums. However, musical flourishes throughout the album add depth and affectation. The track “South London Forever” uses Tom Monger’s harp to develop the song’s ethereal feel. At one point Welch sings “over, and over, and over again” atop of pounding percussion eventually resolved by the strings. Monger’s harp is heard again in “No Choir” while developing the celestial imagery in “Patricia”.

Likewise, Welch plays the piano’s low octave to highlight “Big God’s” sense of foreboding. Despite avoiding experimentation, Florence and the Machine jam-pack their tracks with so many layers of music it is impossible to discern the individual instruments. The liner notes specify a pedal steel guitar in “Hunger”, a ukulele in “South London Forever”, and a cello in “100 Years”. Without the notes, these instruments’ musical contributions are lost to the heavy and systematized vocals, percussion, and guitar.

In typical Florence and the Machine manner, Welch’s voice is the focal point throughout High As Hope. Her vocal range is impressive, and she climbs the octave scale with deliberateness. Yet she uses her voice for more than singing as her groans, squeaks, and oscillations underscore her empowered vibrato. On “Sky Full of Song”, she includes lush vocal backgrounds that serve to only accentuate while “Grace” gives Welch the space to unleash her vocal prowess. Her vocal range personifies the emotional sweeps associated with developing awareness.

The process of emotional growth is arduous and often demonstrates regression before progress. The album ends on a note of optimism, exhibiting the ability to transgress emotional culpability. High As Hope reaffirms that harmful practices and emotional emptiness are not sources of care. With these tracks and the album in general, Florence and the Machine give listeners a sense of the universality of pain and vulnerability.

RATING 8 / 10