Wednesday, July 4, 2018

album review: 'high as hope' by florence + the machine

I'm a little stunned that I haven't heard more about this record.

See, I remember in 2015 when Florence + The Machine unleashed How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful with 'What Kind Of Man', arguably one of the band's best ever songs and one of my favourite songs of that year... and yet I was lukewarm to the record itself. Unlike that song, more of the album couldn't sustain the oversold bombast from the production or Florence's heavily multi-tracked delivery, which was a damn shame because the writing had never been better. And yes, I know I'm very much in the minority when it comes to opinions on that record, but returning to it I was continuously struck by how damn uneven it felt. 

And thus I was interested to hear how much High As Hope was pivoting out of this territory, instead reportedly going for a brand of minimalism that seemed almost antithetical to Florence + The Machine's approach across their career, and that's before you note how they had switched producers to Emile Haynie, who primarily got his start in hip-hop before racking up credits across the mainstream for the past decade, from Kid Cudi to Eminem, from Kanye to Lana Del Rey. So yeah, while critics have been pretty receptive, I wasn't sure what we could be getting with this, especially as it's Florence + The Machine's shortest record to date. So okay, how is High As Hope?

So here's a funny thing: you can definitely argue this is a more stripped back, and borderline restrained record from Florence + The Machine - for as much as restraint is possible for a group like this one - and for a nice change of pace the production actually takes real steps to double down on the core melodies and deliver a more cohesive project. Hell, in comparison to the slapdash messiness that put me off so much of their 2015 release, while not compromising or overselling Florence Welch's huge presence, this is probably the first record from Florence + The Machine that has the refined focus to really click more deeply for me. And yet... look, I'll definitely argue this is a really good, likely even great record, but it got really hard to avoid a comparison to a project that took a similar sound to even greater heights a month ago, but we'll get to that.

But first, the most notable improvement: production. Because on the surface in composition and arrangement, Florence + The Machine is relying on much of the same template they worked on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful: blocky percussion that shakes the mix, jagged staccato piano chords, accent notes of horns and the occasional bit of guitar to drive off the richer tapestry of strings, all building against swells of multi-tracking and choirs to crank the bombast to eleven. And yet what someone in the production booth finally realized is that over-selling every element - especially the multi-tracking - leads to songs that lack dynamics or a credible crescendo, and thus not only are the backing vocals more precisely arranged to give the songs some breathing room, but we get more delicate and restrained cuts that are confident enough to let Florence's tremendous delivery carry the mix without augmentation. And while I'm most inclined to give Emile Haynie credit for this choice, Florence Welch co-produced the majority of this record and this choice to opt for subtler modulation places a much heavier onus on her to deliver... and yeah, she really does. I've always said she's got a ton of presence and power, but I've always placed her in the same category as artists who relied more on that than the subtler, more cutting emotions... and boy, when given the opportunity, she proved me wrong here! Strip away the garish textures and show an artist confident enough in her performance to end the record with an absolutely stunning ballad with no histrionics, that shows a lot of artistic growth on her part. 

And this sense of modulation means the moments that do go for that climax hit a fair bit harder. 'Hunger' is the most immediate standout - even if I think 'What Kind Of Man' is still a high water mark of furious power, it was also lightning in a bottle of that sound working, while 'Hunger' is more naturally affirmative and earns its swell just as effectively against the driving piano and sharper bassline. Hell, that deeper focus on groove also brings out a great contrast against the tinkling pianos around 'Sky Full Of Song', the thrumming swells of strings on 'Patricia', or even the achingly slow sandy swell of 'June' or the murky keys of 'Big God', and that's before we get the more restrained pieces like 'No Choir' or 'Grace' or the stunning multi-tracking and strings of 'The End Of Love'. Now I won't always say the production entirely sticks the landing - the smoother, rounded tones of 'South London Forever' in the drums and sharper strings leave me feeling that like there should be a greater swell that doesn't come, especially with the touches of saxophone - and '100 Years' has a similar sense of gentle distance from the main vocal line with touches of tremolo picking that leave me thinking the climax should hit with more surging power... or, you know, hit at all. Hell, it almost feels like outside of the overweight drum pickup and sharper guitar, they were just hedging their bets a bit to let the song really take off - hell, they got Kamasi Washington on the sax there, and the fact that this song doesn't really hit might be a crime!

But now we get to the meat of things: the lyrics and themes. And here's the thing: one thing I think got overlooked in my review of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was how the writing was really what saved that album from its production issues - and on High As Hope, Florence Welch really continues that tradition. What I've always liked about her songwriting is that she has no qualms going for broke and using words that match her delivery, and she's smart enough to keep her framing back just far enough to encapsulate the reckless danger of it. And thus when the fundamental themes of High As Hope are yearning for some deeper form of fulfillment to satisfy that yawning hole within that she's plugged with alcohol, drugs, and wild love in the past, and since she's somewhat of a classicist, she'll evoke religious ecstasy to characterize the feeling of a crush returning her text on 'Big God'. And while that could come across as oversold on previous records, with a more restrained and human aesthetic on this record - hell, a song like 'Sky Full Of Song' is all about that grounding presence - it bridges that gap in the framing to make those broader metaphors feel remarkably resonant. And that especially comes through on the two songs named for women Welch clearly adores: her little sister Grace who has always seemed more mature and grounded in her own way, and Patti Smith on 'Patricia', where she questions if in all of the insanity of the world she had that same yearning. And I really do love how this album concludes with 'The End Of Love' and 'No Choir', where she learns not to put aside passion, but to not use it to plug a hole inside, and thus learn to cherish those moments in between extremes of emotion that'll likely wind up forgotten but worth it all the same. And yet if I were to criticize the writing... well, hell, it's not even really a criticism given the more personal framing and stakes here, but I was hard-pressed to ignore similarities to Neko Case's Hell-On, which also took on similar introspective themes - they're similar performers, and I do think Case's more layered poetry is a cut above the blunter language Welch uses, at least for me.

And yet at the same time, that bluntness serves a purpose and is most definitely more accessible, and for the first time I get the impression that Florence + The Machine can really play in that same ballpark, with a much stronger sense of refinement across the board from production to thematic cohesion to delivery. This is a record that only got better with every listen I gave it, and while I might be the only one saying it, I think this might just be one of their best to date. For me, High As Hope gets a light 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation - perhaps not the immediate wallop of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, but a record that reflects the maturity and poise to last going forward. And speaking as someone who was not really a fan before now... yeah, you'll want to hear this, great stuff.

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