Monday, July 2, 2018

High As Hope | Florence + The Machine



In 2011, Florence + The Machine released a Gothic cathedral of a sophomore record, Ceremonials. Dark, unrestrained instrumentation and high-voltage vocal performances thundered Florence Welch through a record that paired well with the successful formula of Lungs, distracting listeners from the deep-seeded issues that kept the record's blood pumping from beneath the patchwork of otherworldly metaphors. Four years later, it was counteracted by How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, which shifted the point of view to Welch's immediate self-destructive behaviors – and away from the underlying discomforts, which were never settled in its predecessor's ornate storytelling and caused her to unravel throughout her first two records.

A sobering agent following the drunken blur of her early days of fame, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful gave her structure and clarity. It recognizes the storms she conjured as she traveled from city to city, from party to party. High As Hope, meanwhile, is her homecoming record: It's Florence sans machine, stripped of her brass armor and here to confront what Ceremonials attempted to address years ago. She has been settled for a few years now, and she’s had time to reflect on her lifelong coping mechanisms: "When I go home alone, I drive past the place where I was born and the places that I used to drink, young and drunk and stumbling in the street," she recounts of her hometown on "South London Forever." 

We see Welch with the least flash, at her most literal – but with restraint. "At 17, I started to starve myself," she opens on the thumping "Hunger," before pulling back and carrying over to a different hunger – a passion she sees in listeners a decade her junior. She addresses her grandmother's suicide again, after having dedicated the opening track of Ceremonials to the topic, this time on "The End of Love" in a painfully upfront way: "And in a moment of joy and fury, I threw myself from the balcony like my grandmother so many years before me." Whereas "Only If For a Night" recounted a dream, the new track listens as a devastating retelling of her family and ancestors, leaving listeners awestruck with its stretched harmonies and uncharacteristically conversationalist tone.

The record's title and a track like "South London Forever" may cast a feeling of peace with having her worst days behind her, but now, Welch can find that peace only in cracking her vulnerabilities wide open, broadcasting her guilt as a form of self-repair. She purges pain her pain outright, rather than reaching outward or masquerading turmoil for solace. And though she makes unprecedentedly declarative statements, she pulls back in time, as to keep her confessions striking when they do spill out. Even the narrative on "Grace," an intimate apology to her younger sister in the form of Welch's most reality-based power ballad yet, intrigues with its minimal exaggeration across its swelling, five-minute run. 

Released alongside Welch's first poetry collection, High As Hope displays a conscious effort to reel in sonic distractions to allow her unstructured confessions to resonate. Her voice, as impressive as it is, has been pulled down to a volume level in the upper single digits, and the 10 sprawling tracks on this album are less hook-reliant. She operates her voice in ways never before recognized, creaking across the haunting "Big God" and cascading down the sizzling opening track "June" like a rogue paint dribble down a finished canvas. And with its drum line, hand claps, and encompassing chorus, "100 Years" has the gusto of the full-blast anthems in her back catalog, but its raw, underproduced vocals and organic nuances keep it cohesive with this record's neutral-toned palette.

Much of the conversation surrounding High As Hope relies on the subtle shifts in Florence + The Machine's musicality: The mixes crackle with imperfections, the instrumentation and Welch's voice swoon and build without outright jolts, and the record's landscape is milled into an even consistency. Granted, this all allows exhilarating bursts like "Hunger" and "100 Years" to coexist with subtle glistens like "Sky Full of Song" and "The End of Love." But this record displays a much more important metamorphosis: The personal one within Florence Welch. She has never sung about herself or presented her feelings in the way she does on this record – and never have her words been backlit with such bright shimmers of hope.

High As Hope is available now via Republic Records.

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Maira Gall