Florence and the machine’s best song to date is “Kiss With a Fist.” We are not arguing here. A blunt, cheerful ode to the romantic joys of mutually indulged domestic violence, the track is the glorious thorn on Florence Welch’s ascendant English rose — quick (two minutes!) and dirty (distorted guitars!) and irresponsible. It’s a fang-bearing flash of Joan Jett snarl amid the gothic-soccer-mom AOR grandeur of her celebrated 2009 debut, Lungs. Thunderous Hogwarts-R&B anthem “Dog Days Are Over” made her nominally famous, but here the violent exception rules: She’s a red-haired soul belter with a fierier, gnarlier, more volatile take on Adele’s retromania, a Kate Bush disciple who never forgets that the real Kate Bush could kill you with her bare hands.
Welch may never do anything as dangerous and uncouth as “Kiss” ever again. But even the threat of menace works wonders on terrific follow-up Ceremonials: She’s a bloodied, bloodying songbird in a gilded cage of immaculately crafted, slow-burn, chest-beating empowerment anthems, gripping steel bars that her elegantly volcanic voice could shred ?at any moment.
Consider rapturous call to arms “Shake It Out,” a feast of droning organs and concussive drums that begins as an assassination/martyrdom attempt, throwing Flo to the clichés instead of the lions: “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” “Damned if I do and damned if I don’t,” “At the end of my rope,” “It’s a shot in the dark,” and all-time Catholic-hymn classic “It’s hard to dance with a devil on your back.” Yet she rips the throat out of every line with that bazooka alto, turns even the banalities into profundities.
Thus is Ceremonials‘ pattern set: She’s so much better than her material that her material is rendered immaterial. “Lover to Lover” is the sort of sexy post-white-flight Motown strut Annie Lennox used to own; “No Light, No Light” is a desperate lovers’ quarrel, all agitated strings and galloping drums (no broken jaws or burning beds this time, alas); “What the Water Gave Me” is eerie, noirish melodrama, dainty plinking harp battling with surging electric guitar, PJ Harvey’s feral specter rising from the swamp for a tantalizing instant.
And oh, throughout, the pianos! By God’s teeth, this is the Axis: Bold as Love of piano, tinkling and pounding and cascading and drizzling and thundering, from convulsive to jaunty lead melodies, often bolstered by drums of DJ Premierlevel bombast, coated in sumptuous hot-fudge reverb, nostalgically futuristic, like aural Instagram. As songs, most of these are negligible (they’re all roughly five minutes long, begin ominously, intensify inexorably, and explode theatrically right around the bridge); but as events, they’re epochal and become even more so the more ostentatious Flo’s vocals get. When she sings, “And I did cartwheels in your honor,” her voice actually does cartwheels; the way she delivers the three-word phrase “short shallow gasps” is worthy of Shakespeare, Wicked, and Twilight.
Instructively, her best lyrical moment here, “All This & Heaven Too,” laments the failure of language to articulate her wonder: “All my stumbling phrases never amounted to anything worth this feeling.” So concentrate on that feeling, that casual grandiosity, the overpowering beauty with a searing edge that she doesn’t indulge enough, but just enough to leave you spellbound, regardless. A kiss without a fist is better than none.