Florence and The Machine’s new album is a continuation of her sound with more personal, poetic lyrics and occasionally challenging song structures. However, there are no surprises – it plays it safe despite its impressive personnel list, for better and for worse.
The vast majority of Florence and the Machine‘s listenership is seemingly unaware of anything produced past her debut album, Lungs. The crowd at her recent ‘ Radio 1’s Biggest Weekend’ appearance are seemingly nonplussed by anything other than ‘Spectrum’ or ‘Shake It Out’ from Ceremonials, and almost nothing from How Big, How Blue, How Beatutiful – her sound perhaps maturing and transitioning away from its radio-friendly alt-pop roots. High As Hope, her latest album, continues in the trend of maturing, refining her sound – and whilst providing a sprinkling of more personal lyricism, an internal struggle between pop friendliness and more artistic sensibilities prevents either side from winning out, the album failing to realise its fullest potential.
‘Hunger’ is perhaps the only place on the album where this struggle resolves itself – an intensely enjoyable ‘banger’ that kicks off the album, its unconventional structuring combining with lush instrumentals and fantastic production – Florence’s voice soaring throughout the track, impassioned and glittering. The lyrics across the track have a weight greater than their peppy delivery, too, with themes of addiction (“I thought that love was in the drugs / but the more I took, the more it took away”) and a giddy hope in youthful energy (“Oh, but you and all your vibrant youth / How could anything bad ever happen to you? / You make a fool of death with your beauty”). Lyrical prowess continues to be the strong suit of songs like ‘South London Forever’, a charming ode to Florence’s youth complete with evocative portraits of teenagers “Young and drunk and stumbling in the street / Outside the Joiners Arms / like foals unsteady on their feet”, but quickly struggles to merge with the bombast and pop sensibilities of what is expected from a Florence album on songs like ‘Sky Full Of Song’, ‘Grace’, ‘Patricia’ and ‘100 Years’ that make up the core of High As Hope.
Whilst these songs have decadent instrumentals and extravagant vocal performances from Florence herself, they end up appearing a collage of Florence-sounding songs that aren’t all that satisfying a listen. No matter how lavish the production (this time not handled by Isabella ‘The Machine’ Summers but Florence Welch and Emile Haynes) nor how high the crescendos, these songs simply aren’t all that memorable. There’s an uncomfortable tension that sits at the heart of High As Hope, between its personal and introspective intentions and lyricisms and its kitchen sink, climax-heavy songwriting and instrumental flair. The lack of unique character behind these songs is perhaps even more disappointing considering the truly impressive feature list for High As Hope, supposedly featuring contributions from Kamasi Washington, Jamie XX, Sampha, Father John Misty and Cold War Kids. All excitement crumbles upon a realization that none of the individual characters of any of these contributors have really worked their way into the album, instead just feeding into a general melange of ‘Florence-ness’.
The closing two tracks go some way to remedy these problems, with a bit more character and flair of their own, as well as once again marrying the two spheres of sound (cripplingly personal and explosively arena-filling) that Florence presents on High As Hope. ‘The End of Love’s gorgeously layered vocals multiply and cascade over each other akin to the ‘prismatised’ vocals of Justin Vernon on 22, A Million in a relatively simple ballad that dwells on the so very lighhearted themes of love, family and suicide. The final track on the album, ‘No Choir’ gently tugs on the heartstrings, another beautifully simple, short and sweet song that manages to be self-reflective without being self-absorbed. Its lyrics regarding love’s perfect stillness and uneventfulness are rightly understood as difficult to pin down within Florence’s trademark sound, and yet she makes a bold attempt to do just that here, which pays off wonderfully.
A little lost, vague and directionless in its center section, High As Hope will likely please fans in its continuation of Florence’s pre-raphaelite-pop, but the bombast wears thin on multiple listens, showing an artist perhaps even more in flux than the music she pens. At its best, the album truly achieves what it sets out to do, creating alternative hymns with a vivid emotional and lyrical palate – but too many songs slip into being almost boring – a criticism that could never apply to an album as vital and varied as Ceremonials or Lungs.
High As Hope is available now via Universal Music.