Tuesday, June 2, 2015

album review: 'how big, how blue, how beautiful' by florence + the machine

Well, I'm pretty much obliged to cover this. Not because I've been getting requests - although I have - but more because I think every girlfriend I've ever had is a fan of Florence + The Machine, and if I didn't say something, I'd probably hear something.

And really, I can't blame them, because Florence + The Machine is one of those acts I always thought deserved to get a lot bigger than they have. When they smashed onto the scene in 2009 with the album Lungs and anthemic songs like 'Dog Days Are Over', a lot of critics drew comparisons with artists like Fiona Apple, PJ Harvey, and especially Kate Bush. Now I would not go that far - especially on the last one - but there was often a raw desperate power behind Florence's vocals that lacked subtlety but had a ton of presence and power, which was often enough to allow you to overlook the fact that the lyricism could occasionally stray into clumsiness and that the instrumentation wasn't really as raw as it could have been. Hell, you could make the argument that without Florence + The Machine, you wouldn't have so many acts hammering the percussion-groove-over-melody as has been popular over the past few days, although they did do plenty to make it sound pretty damn pretty along the way.

So with that in mind, why the hell isn't Florence + The Machine more popular, like on the charts? Well, I'd argue part of it is the fact that they've never really played the 'pop' game, especially in the lightweight silliness of the beginning of the club boom in 2009. Some of it might tie to the fact that Florence + The Machine fall into a similar area where most power pop ends up - too heavy and loud for pop radio, yet not quite rough-edged enough to rock harder. And part of it might just be that Florence Welch's intensity and rawness can be a hard sell - granted, I'm not sure I buy that, given the recent success of acts like Sia or Tove Lo. Hell, even Florence landed on the charts thanks to goddamn Calvin Harris making everything worse as he usually does. Or maybe some of it was just bad timing - their follow-up record Ceremonies dropped in 2011, and yet had the misfortune of going against 21 by Adele, which took Florence + The Machine's percussion-heavy formula and one of their main producers Paul Epworth and brought a level of tightness in the writing that Florence had never quite mastered. Yes, I get that a voice like Florence's doesn't exactly need subtlety to make impact, but eventually cranking every chorus to eleven loses impact when you don't have adequate melodic crescendos or stronger lyrical punch, especially when she goes for such self-serious gravitas.

But after four years away, Florence + The Machine are back, apparently after Florence went through one of the most difficult points in her life, having a 'bit of a nervous breakdown' according to her, which places this record as her most personal. Did it pay off?

Honestly, I'm not sure it does. That's one of the many frustrating elements about this record, because it's an easy example of a band definitely taking steps in the right direction, but there are certain issues that have persisted beyond the changes and only come across more glaring now. And it's hard to parse out where to assign the blame - producers Markus Dravs and Paul Epworth, the backing band, or Florence herself. And the exasperating thing is that none of it makes the album bad, per se, just weaker and lacking in more impact than it should. In other words, it's decent, but I would not call this great.

So let's start with Florence herself... and time to be brutally honest, I've never loved her as a vocalist. I know, borderline heresy, but as much as I respect her pipes and range and intensity, I'm also coming as a fan of symphonic and power metal, which has women with some of the most striking vocal talents in the industry - hell, I'm still amazed Florence hasn't gone more in this direction, especially given her songwriting. But more often than not she tends to fall into Christina Aguliera territory for me - incredible pipes and intensity, but it doesn't always feel visceral to bring the emotions forth beyond sheer volume. It's the difference between a broad wallop and a precise cut, and the heavy multi-tracking - which Florence has never needed - only intensifies this. The odd thing is that this record, especially on its back half, actually tries to get Florence to ease back on the histrionics for songs like 'Long & Lost' and 'St. Jude', and she's pretty good here, bringing a pretty potent tension to the songs and showing real vulnerability.

And believe it or not, the writing supports it too. Now it's not without my usual issues with Florence + The Machine songwriting - bog-standard metaphors cribbed from classical mythology and legend, relatively basic songwriting structures, a tendency to slip into cliche - but there are improvements here, most notably in the framing. Thematically, this record appears to be a break-up album, but Florence does plenty to highlight the fact that her own behaviour hasn't helped things. 'Ship To Wreck' sets the scene early, with Florence questioning her own reckless rationale for instigating the relationship in the first place, and probably how she isn't a good fit for the aloof dreamer she describes on 'What Kind Of Man' - and she's probably right, and she does sell it as believable. And yet on the title track, she describes how she clung to that relationship even when they were apart for too long or worked to appease a situation doomed to fail on 'Queen Of Peace'. Thankfully, she finally made the choice within to end it... but then we hit the centerpiece of this album, 'Delilah', where the recklessness spirals out of control as she does everything she can to distract herself from waiting for his call. Now I'm conflicted about this song - it seems to imply nothing so bad as reckless distraction, but the references to 'dancing with Delilah' and lyrics like 'it's one more boy and one more lie' imply something darker - an attempt to strike back and pierce his distance through infidelity? It'd make the remorse and frustration of lingering feelings of the next few songs make sense until she finally makes the choice on 'St. Jude' to give up and just end it already, end the lost cause. And what works here is the framing - the larger context of the album implies she'd have been better off ending this early but instead allowed herself to get strung along, and none of her reckless behaviour around it is glorified. Hell, 'Third Eye' makes that framing all the more literal as she counsels a friend to break free of the same hold, and I kind of appreciate the sequencing as that might have been the moment outside of herself that spurs her into action. Really, I'd argue the writing might be the best part of this record.

The problem is that the production does nothing to highlight it. I'm genuinely shocked that Markus Dravs, who worked with Bjork on Homogenic, helped produce this, because I get so little intimacy from Florence's vocals thanks to her placement midway into the mix, the multi-tracking, and the reverb. And that's a real problem on a record that's supposed to feel raw and heartfelt, even if she's bottling these feelings inside. Granted, this is an issue with the production across the board. On the one hand, the band finally seemed to be moving in a more melodic direction with this record, with the most obvious addition being the full horn section, but it's used more as musical punctuation than holding a melody line. Instead, we get the fluttering guitars and keys of 'Ship To Wreck' that actually rides a pretty good bassline, the heavier guitar crunch of 'What Kind Of Man', the stately bombast of 'Queen Of Peace' with the strings, horns, and heavier bass, or the rollicking panic of 'Delilah' that builds off of a seething organ and piano line and some decent snarl. But this leads us to the first of many issues with the production, in that it's simply overstuffed and not emphasizing the right things. The bizarre thing is that in overloading Florence's voice with so much multi-tracking and effects which she doesn't need, not only was the intimacy neutered but it also drowns out more actual melodies driving the songs, with only jingling percussion and thicker beats consistently coming through. And not only does this mean the guitar licks are crushed into a slurry, but it gives none of the melodies trying to add dramatic climax to the chorus the focus. And while I wasn't expecting grit - Florence's production is too polished for that - it does mean that more of the choruses run together to me, which is not good on an album where songs frequently run over four minutes and don't do enough to really earn it. It screams of indulgence, especially when there's no real solos and the songs are piled with more decadent classical elements without the slightest hint of restraint. The absolute worst case of this is 'Mother', which has a decent steamy guitar lick and bass line anchoring the melody before a heavily multi-tracked shouting chorus is added that doesn't fit at all with rest of the vibe before an ugly lo-fi fuzz is smeared over the end of the song that switches again as the backing vocals piled on and and the tone abruptly becomes cleaner with a blast of cymbals. It's not progressive, it's a mess, and it doesn't fit at all with the rest of the album. 

Now look, I get maximalism is a trait of all Florence + The Machine records, but it's rare I've seen an album hammer for epic bombast so hard and yet miss the mark, especially when the songwriting would have been better suited for instrumental restraint or at least nuance. As much as I can respect Florence's voice and writing, her producers completely oversold her on this record to the expense of the rest of the band, which is a shame because the melodic grooves on this album are pretty solid when they aren't crushed by percussion or sloppy layering - 'What Kind Of Man', 'Ship To Wreck', and 'Delilah' are proof of that. And at the end off the day, the record still does feel lacking in raw edge across the board - which, sure, might be the point of the songwriting straining for release, but it doesn't help the overall impact. I'm feeling a 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're a hardcore Florence + The Machine fan. Otherwise... look, Lykke Li explored a lot of similar themes on her last album I Never Learn, and despite being drenched in reverb, the writing and melodies hit me a lot harder.

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