REVIEW: Florence + The Machine's How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

In 2008, Florence Welch's primal voice stormed through a dull musical landscape with combined rage and beauty. On both her debut album Lungs and it's successor Ceremonials, Welch sang with unabashed emotion and force. Sometimes, it felt like she was riding a beast she couldn't control. With her latest album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Florence + The Machine white-knuckles the reigns and takes us to thrilling new places using Welch's well-oiled instrument, eloquent storytelling, and soundscapes with rich climaxes.

During interviews to promote the new record, Welch revealed that after years of touring without breaks, the extra free time offstage lead to substance abuse and volatile relationships. After realizing she was a hurricane destroying her surroundings, she sought quietude in songwriting. Channeling her experiences into revealing, autobiographical songs is new territory for an artist who sometimes hides behind the theatrics of her music. Immediately, this album feels different from its predecessors; "What was it that I said? Did I drunk too much? / Did I build this ship to wreck?" pleads Florence on "Ship To Wreck", the record's opening song. Recalling the damage done after a night of no inhibitions is a typical twenty-something task, and Florence does so while a driving beat and frantic guitars race underneath her. 

As the album progresses, it's clear that the headspace from which these new songs were born ranges from manic to magnificent. On "What Kind of Man", Florence opens the song with eerie, robotic vocals that give way to a menacing rock guitar riff that flips the tone completely. Rarely has Florence ever sung with such venom and disdain as she exorcises the anger of an unhealthy love affair. 

After the biting punch of the first two songs, Florence slows the pace with the top down, night sky vibe of the album's title track. However, the calm is short-lived; what starts as the epic pop we've come to expect from Florence + The Machine ascends into an otherworldly explosion of orchestration. Brass and flutes elevate the melody until you feel like it can't possibly soar higher, until it does - again and again. It's captivating, cathartic, and stunning. To continue riding the high, sweeping, cinematic strings lead into "Queen of Peace." An immediate standout and single contender, "Queen of Peace" has the anthemic chorus Florence masterfully crafts on all of her records, but there's a zest and energy that sounds like somebody comfortably flexing within their strongest elements. 

The most surprising and perhaps welcomed change on How Big, How Blu,e How Beautiful compared to Lungs and Ceremonials is the introduction of restraint in various forms. We know Florence Welch unleashes vocals that feel like standing in front of the strongest winds. That's why hearing her sing with a newfound fragility creates a surprising dynamic, proving Florence is more than just big-voiced and brazen. With the sparse "Various Storms & Saints", Welch's delivery is intricate and arresting. She sings with a wise yet vulnerable assurance: "I know you're bleeding, but you'll be okay / Hold on to your heart, you'll keep it safe / Hold on to your heart, don't give it away." The last line erupts in typical Florence fashion. 

While Florence's voice is perfect for huge, progressive rock songs, it also lends itself well to gospel. Beloved Florence tunes like "Lover to Lover" and "You've Got The Love" show off the singer's more soulful side. As with her other records, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. also has its share of take-you-to-church moments. The first is "Delilah", a song that begs you to stand up and clap in what feels like the most joyous exorcism you'll ever attend, but may in fact be about experimenting with drugs. The lyrics are soaked in spiritual blues: "Too fast for freedom / Sometimes it all falls down/ These chains never leave me / I keep dragging them around." 

After a bombastic first half, it's not surprising that the second half isn't as immediate. With tracks like "Long & Lost" and "Caught", it takes a few listens to digest them completely. The former is eerie, recalling something that might play from an abandoned saloon in a ghost town. With "Caught", there's a campfire folk quality that separates it from the other songs. Florence's voice during the verses is at its most delicate, and the chorus melody beautiful unfolds. Both of these songs exemplify why the album rewards with repeated listens. 

"Third Eye" arrives just in time to usher in the record's climactic close. As the only song written solely by Florence, it's a self-love anthem that avoids the usual cliches and navigates the concept with a beautiful honesty. She urges the song's subject to open themselves up, while also recognizing that she herself is working to accept her own flaws. Musically, "Third Eye" is the most reminiscent of the blissful, wide-eyed songs from 2009's Lungs

The album's centering, emotional core comes with "St. Jude", another sparse, gospel-flavored moment. Electric organ and minimal synths quietly bubble below while Florence injects just the right amount of force when necessary. Primarily, she relies on a vocal that levitates and gracefully floats above the faint sounds of crashing waves and choral hymns. 

The standard edition of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful closes with "Mother." Drenched in 60s psychedelia, "Mother" ends the set with swirling synths and roaring guitars that swell until they swallow the song whole. Lyrically, the themes of religion and release come back into the fold, and the album ends with relief for the protagonist who waged war with her demons, and those of her romantic interests. It's the sound of the sweetest surrender.

Oh lord, won't you leave me
Leave me just like this
Cause I belong to the ground now
I want no more than this

And really, what more could you want?