Florence + the Machine - Ceremonials
Island Records, 2011
Florence + the Machine have always seemed like a pretty minor pop diversion to me. Maybe it was the fact that the first version of their massive pop single "Dog Days Are Over" that I heard was the one on Glee, a show that has the strange effect of making me like songs less than I otherwise would have. Their debut album, entitled Lungs, never really caught on with me either either. Lead singer and brainforce Florence Welch had an interesting voice, and her songs were far from the usual pop music fare, but aside from a few moments of glory ("Dog Days" being one of them), I guess I never really gave it the attention that it probably deserved, not even after I saw them open for U2 on the final leg of their 360 degree tour. However, it was obvious from that show that Florence had charisma: she paraded around the stage, and held the attention of ten thousand audience members fairly easily, but even then, I was so set on the main event that, as tight a musical outfit as the opening band obviously was, they were still just that: an opening band.
That's all about to change, as Florence + the Machine move up to headliner status with their sophomore album, called Ceremonials. The time spent with U2 on the highest grossing tour in history obviously had a big impact on them, as ghosts of that band's early 90's records pop up in nearly every track, and Welch takes to making the kind of larger than life gestures that would make Bono proud. Ceremonials is bigger, brasher, darker and better than it's predecessor, filled to the brim with massive choruses, explosive tribal drums and gothic flourishes, all of which revolve around the core of the band's sound: Welch's unique and powerful voice. She sings like a woman possessed from the get-go, and while the fact that the emotional intensity really never dips below a certain point may result in some finding the disc (which clocks in at a lengthy 56 minutes) feel exhausting or repetitive, repeat listens yield rewarding discoveries and emotional textures that are hard to catch on the first time through. The more I listen, the more I think that Ceremonials is one of the finest albums in a great year, and that's not something I expected at all when I dove in for my first listen.
Ceremonials opens with the rather subdued "Only If For a Night," which presents the album's flair for dark, orchestral chamber pop. The drums pound heavy and high in the mix on the chorus, and Welch's vocals, multi-tracked and surrounded in reverb, sound eerie and massive. Distant pianos and backing vocals ring in the background throughout, and immediately, the album's mood and sonic template are established. Speaking of the latter, listening to this thing on a good pair of headphones is one hell of an experience, and kudos must be paid to producer Paul Epworth, who did some work on Adele's 21 (the biggest selling record of the year), and who gives the album an otherworldly quality.
Second single, "Shake it Out," is an album highlight, due mostly to the desperation Welch pours into her vocal performance. The chorus is huge, but it's the verse and the bridge that hit home the hardest, thanks to what might be the year's biggest powerhouse vocal; this is an anthem in the making, and if there's any justice, it will be an even bigger success than "Dog Days" was; I'd certainly call it the better song. First single "What the Water Gave Me" is a darker, more bass driven track, and is a less obvious single-choice, though it's probably more representative of the album's overall sound. Like many of the songs on the album, the song is based around a propulsive build; once the instrumentation fills out and Welch lets loose, the song explodes, and the result is stunning.
"Never Let Me Go" is another favorite of mine, a gospel-tinged catharsis built around a refrain of back-up voices and a cathedral-filling chorus that sits easily among the album's best. It's damn-near flawless on record, but it's also the kind of song that could end up being a real religious experience live: U2 had a bunch of those on The Joshua Tree, and it's not too surprising that Welch wanted one of her own after seeing Bono belt out "Where the Streets Have No Name" near the end of the show every night on tour.
After three heavyweights, Ceremonials takes a bit of a respite on "Breaking Down," a more straightforward, relaxed pop song, and "Lover to Lover," which wouldn't have sounded out of place on Adele's record (indeed, Welch seems to be channeling her, vocally). Here, it feels a bit out of place and ends up being the album's weakest moment, an inconsequential piece of filler that would be better if the album weren't already a bit long to begin with. "No Light, No Light" plunges us back into darkness though, and that's where this album sounds the most comfortable. Heralded by an organ intro, the song explodes, with a harp accent and a quick crescendo, into a sky-scraping chorus and some of the most personal lyrics on the record. "Would you leave me if told you what I'd become?" she asks on the bridge, where harp flourishes add a nice subtlety to the musical palette. Her voice soars, breaking into falsetto at points, and it's one of the most chilling moments of the record. "Seven Devils" is the perfect companion, a haunting slow-burner that wouldn't be successful in any other hands, but Welch's lilting voice gives it a pulse.
The massive "Heartlines," which opens with tribal drums and gang vocals, builds into one of the album's highlights, a crescendo enforced by Florence's mountainous vocals and a truly bombastic arrangement, all leading to in infectious chorus. It feels like it could be the closer, but we're not quite there yet. "Spectrum" opens in darkness but transitions to pure pop glory, while the anthemic and gorgeously melodic penultimate track, "All This & Heaven Too" might be the album's biggest triumph, as well as it's most instantly rewarding one.
U2's career reinventing classic Achtung Baby turns twenty this week (more on that later), but it's influence is still being felt today. Coldplay's latest has drawn many comparisons to that record, what with it's synth-heavy hooks and titanic production value, but Ceremonials hits far closer to the spirit of U2's second masterpiece than just about any album since. L.A. Times critic Robert Hilburn once called Achtung Baby "U2's daring descent into darkness," and just as that album ended amid turmoil and shadow on the transcendent "Love is Blindness," so does Florence end her record. "Leave My Body" finds the singer aiming for heaven, but she sounds significantly closer to hell in the song's swirling piano/acoustic foundation and it's pounding drums or far off backing vocals. "I'm gonna leave my body, I'm gonna lose my mind," she claims on the song's chorus. It's a resounding declaration amid a dark album's darkest hour, a climactic symphony of sound that serves as one of the most chilling and consuming climaxes of any album this year. It caps off a record that feels like a rebirth; a near-masterpiece that should catapult Florence + the Machine into the ranks of the most premiere artists in the business. No matter what, Welch is undoubtedly one of the most captivating personas in pop music. Most artists with a hit like "Dog Days" up their sleeve would aim to write a full album of pop hits on the follow up, but Ceremonials is anything but safe. It's an honest-to-God album in an age of singles, a strikingly left-of-the-mainstream work of art where Welch airs her demons, sings her heart out, and comes out sounding like a true rock and roll star. And you can't beat that.