Some storms build slowly, but Florence + the Machine’s big new album rides in like a tornado in Kansas—one rapturous spin, and then it’s gone. The opening line of the opening song, aptly titled “Ship to Wreck,” concerns a need for sleeping pills to quiet the head. It’s a song about drunken regret: Florence Welch sings about drinking too much and not remembering what happened afterwards. It’s rock and pop distilled to those genres' very lyrical essence. She sings about fucking up, acting erratically, ruining something, being hungover, needing some sleep—things people have been singing about since before Mick Jagger, since the blues. From the get-go, it’s clear that this album is not going to be an easy ride, but it’s going to be an honest one.
Welch, who fronts the band with an ever-changing rotation of musicians serving as The Machine, has said that How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is about some recent hard times from her real life. “It was a decision to have a year off," she told Zane Lowe. [I had] a bit of a nervous breakdown. It was a bit of a crash landing, in a sense. It was a funny time—I've been so used to [having] a gig at the end of every day...In the year off, I was still going out and going to events, but something wasn't quite right. I was spiraling a bit; I wasn't making myself happy. I think I just felt very unstable." Welch is famous for an otherworldly sound that relies on metaphors of water and nature, but for How Big, How Blue, How Beautuful, she and producer Markus Dravs stripped everything down to focus on more direct songwriting. “Markus really encouraged me to be more vulnerable. I like hiding behind things—metaphor, reverb, extra vocals—and he just wouldn't let me do that,” she told Elle. “The lyrics were more direct, so the music simplified along with that."
You can hear that shift in the album’s pure, eager urgency, and her newfound rawness is a welcome change. Listening to her first two albums, 2009’s Lungs and 2011’s Ceremonials, I often felt that Welch’s fantastical sound was a crutch. The music might have been personal, but wrapped up in a kind of Renaissance Fair mysticism, it was often hard to tell. There was often an enormous amount of fuzz and reverb, with layers of ghostly harmonies, as though she were intentionally trying to keep the audience at a cold distance. Florence dipped her toe into dance music with Calvin Harris, achieved a certain amount of fame, especially in her home turf, the UK (How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful debuted at the top of the British charts this week, making it her third number-one album), and on the festival circuit. But bigger celebrity, for which she has always seemed poised, has eluded her in the US. This album should change that—in fact, just yesterday, it was announced that How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful had debuted at number one on Billboard, a first for Florence in America.
Welch has often been compared to Kate Bush—the odd fairy princess of pop—but on this new work, I hear a sharper tone in Welch’s voice, with hints of Beth Ditto, Chrissie Hynde, Annie Lennox, even a bit of Lana Del Rey’s disgusted pathos. This is a great thing. She seems to have tamped down on the desire to be idiosyncratic, and instead embraced just being plainly powerful.
“Ship to Wreck” is clear and confident, a kind of magical exemplar of the uncomplicated, infinitely complicated art of straightforward pop.
Instead, I’d call Florence’s new album music for the post-Haim era. With their 2013 debut album, Days Are Gone, the L.A. trio of sisters (and one-time FADER cover stars) reminded the world of the joys of plain, earthy AM radio rock by bands like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles. Taylor Swift followed suit the following year, edging out her country roots for a softer pop sound and making the best—and best-selling—album of her career, with 1989. On How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Florence’s “What Kind of Man” is crunching and huge, a stadium rock song à la Gary Glitter to clap your hands to, and a pissed-off ode to bad love that’ll sting any listener who has just been through a breakup. On the title track, pretty horns adorn her voice's unmistakable, bare tremble, which reminds us, of all people, of Natalie Merchant at her best moments. Occasionally, she falls back into some of her murky, messy tendencies, like on middling “Third Eye,” but then quickly makes it up for it with heftier jams, like “Mother,” with its raging psych-rock guitars.
But it’s “Ship to Wreck” that matters most. It’s been some time since a song burned this bright. You sense that Haim, Tame Impala, Swift, and Del Rey have all been reaching for moments as cool and catchy as “Ship to Wreck,” but to my ear, none have created a song quite like this. The chorus is huge—her voice bangs with banshee howls—but she takes her time getting there, laying down a foundation of jangly rock and well-written words. I don’t have much else to say about it other than that—it’s clear and confident, a kind of magical exemplar of the uncomplicated, infinitely complicated art of straightforward pop. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus—it’s the kind of song you imagine a record label boss hearing for the first time and screaming, “Now, that’s a hit!” If it can sneak its way into the sea of Jason Derulo and Maroon 5 songs that now dominate the radio, it could even be a song of the summer contender. Hell, If she had done nothing else but “Ship to Wreck,” it would’ve been enough. That’s the trick, after all, in pop music: one triumphant moment that makes everyone close their eyes and sing along, and nothing else matters.