Florence + the Machine's 'High As Hope' defies fans' expectation but soars nonetheless
Florence Welch and her baroque-pop outfit abandon their grand narratives and melodrama for a stripped down, intimate fourth studio album that shoots straight from the soul
In a recent interview, Florence Welch confessed that her fourth album pursues a noticeably different direction. In so doing, she described it as "less Florence-y". Indeed, it's a curious expression for her to be using but a very insightful one too. Fans of the London-based indie rockers will instantly tell you what "Florence-y" means. It's a hyperbolic output of melodrama, underlined by massive orchestral swells and haunting, cinematic synths, all topped off with the powerful boom of Florence's war-cry like vocals. It's something that clearly works. Something that produced three back-to-back platinum albums for Florence + the Machine.
It's not like we haven't been here before. The advanced publicity of Florence's previous album, 2015's 'How Big How Blue How Beautiful,' was also teased as something less Florence-y: the stripped-down work, as she put it then, of “a quiet person”. But with propulsive hits like 'Ship to Wreck' and 'What Kind of a Man', the album proved to be nothing short of 100% Florence. But this time around, with 'High As Hope', she might actually mean it.
The album opener 'June' is sparse and stripped back, with barely-there instrumentation making way for Florence's vocals, who chooses not to belt out her usual bombastic vibrato, but still comes forth as powerful as ever. On the lead single 'Hunger', we are introduced to a new side to her lyricism. Where Flo previously masked her lyrics in grandiose and complex metaphor, the new album sees her maintain a brooding, straight-up confessional tone. Her stark depiction of coming to terms with a teenage eating disorder is laid bare in the lyric: "At seventeen, I started to starve myself / I thought that love was a kind of emptiness". She then immediately makes it a universally relatable problem with the simple refrain "We all have a hunger." It's not the usual style you expect from the band and it catches you off-guard.
On the coy and deeply confessional 'South London Forever', Welch makes peace with the excesses that decorated her rise to fame, without holding back any punches. Instead of the usual celestial romanticism, she looks back on being “young and drunk and stumbling in The Joiners Arms like foals unsteady on their feet / with the art students and boys in bands / high on E and holding hands with somebody I just met”. Focussing on the simple things, she admits “it doesn’t get better than this”.
The theme continues on 'Big God', a song about waiting for someone to text back, which teases us with some vintage Florence + the Machine. But it doesn't quite have that steady build and emotional release that formed the backbone of their earlier releases. ‘Grace’ meanwhile takes it back to the essentials - just Florence’s soul, her memories and a piano. Responding to her mother’s notion that the world of music would be too “dangerous”, she bares her voice as her only means of survival as she confesses that this is “the only thing I’ve ever had any faith in”.
Well into the second half of the album is when we finally see a full blast of the familiar Florence + the Machine. The groove-heavy 'Patricia' has all the markings of their older classic indie-pop numbers like What 'Kind Of Man’ and ‘Dog Days Are Over.’ But at the same time, Florence strikes a sentiment unheard-of on her previous albums, a complete inversion of the usual melodrama one associates with the band: "It's such a wonderful thing to love," she sings.
By the end of the album, one thing is for sure, 'High As Hope' was made with no attention to fans' expectation. It's straight from the soul and as earnest as it gets. This is best exemplified on the self-aware album closer 'No Choir', in which Florence sings: “It’s hard to write about being happy because the older I get, I find that happiness is an extremely uneventful subject.” It's an outright admission that no grand narrative is required to voice the solace of everything being just so.
Some might feel that Florence + the Machine played it quite safe with 'High As Hope', but I would strongly disagree. It feels like the conscious choice to stray from their usual M.O. is a shield against being turned into self-parody. But it's not a defensive stance that the baroque-pop savants adopt. It's a bold, look-you-in-the-eye and sit-you-down attitude that radiates from the album. Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to strip things down to the very bare bones. One wouldn't expect Florence + the Machine to subscribe to the adage that less is more, but it looks like that's exactly what they've done on 'High As Hope'. For all the fans who were waiting for a 120-decibel cathartic release and a grand narrative, better luck next time!