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Countless singers have profited from subjecting their raw talents and pedestrian image to a trial by fire, often at the hands of discerning music execs. The synergism of a politely edgy aesthetic, expert media training and just a whiff of the charisma that once lit up their busking corner is often what propels artists to the upper echelons of pop.
Yet an artist’s embryonic incarnations can also prove fascinating to their fan base, and at times leave them pining churlishly for a purer distillation of their musical messiah. That nobody longs for Florence and the Machine to revert to the garage-rock of “Kiss with a Fist” goes to show how ingenious Florence Welch’s shift from Lily Allen peer to medieval wench-chic was.
Her reinvention spurred 2009’s Lungs to soundtrack a summer of daisy chain-making for many a middle-class teenager. It is to Welch’s credit however, that her festival-friendly attire was the perfect accompaniment to the pompous, string-strewn production and fantastical lyrical imagery of her music.
This sound was arguably perfected on 2012’s Ceremonials, but those left exhausted by that record’s Gothic bombast may find reprieve with the more traditional rock of their latest effort, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.
Just don’t come expecting the puckishness of “Kiss with a Fist”. “What Kind of Man” flexes a few angry muscles with its edgy guitar strokes and indignant howls (“You let me dangle / at cruel angles” and so on and so forth), but the track’s one-line chorus and Will Gregory’s stiff brass section never emulsify, blunting the track’s ferocity when it should be charging into battle.
But this is a rare and minor fumble. Elsewhere, Gregory’s contributions add a swashbuckling flavour to otherwise sober assessments of modern relationships, particularly on the rallying stomp of “Queen of Peace”.
Aside from her voice, Welch’s trump card has always been her otherworldly expressions of familiar emotions. For the first time however, her lyrics shine a light on once foreboding shadows. Rather than a stab at spiritual titillation, the title track’s opening reference to a crucifix stands as nothing more than an allusion to the bland Los Angeles vista facing Welch as she jumped into an unhealthy romance with an indecisive man.
This man is the target of Welch’s scorn for much of the album, but only on “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” does she concede that there is a reward for those who persevere in love: “Like an atmosphere around me / I’m happy you’re beside me”. This sense of optimism is mirrored by Gregory, his swelling brass casting golden rays across the track’s curdling emotions.
Welch’s voice takes once again centre stage, with the guttural echo that made her a household name sounding stronger than ever on the album’s uptempo moments. She carries the skeletal arrangements of “Various Storms & Saints” and “Long & Lost” on her shoulders, occasionally dipping into beautifully hushed registers that ripple like a chill through the speakers .
Welch has always been a purveyor of multi-layered song structures, with songs such as “No Light, No Light” rolling out b-sections that a lesser artist would sever and stretch into top lines for separate songs. That tradition is upheld on “Third Eye”, a hands-in-the-air and (dare we say?) festival-friendly tribute to Fleetwood Mac, with a dash of gospel rhetoric for good measure.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful does more than move Florence and the Machine away from the stylistic corner they had previously backed themselves into. Shorn of the dramatic production of Lungs and Ceremonials, tracks such as “Third Eye” and “Delilah” still deliver the same brand of sweeping ecstasy as well as any other song in the band’s catalogue, proving that sometimes it doesn’t matter what you wear or what your original intentions were – there are some people who simply belong on a festival stage.