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Review: Florence + the Machine Go Big, Then Go Home on ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: June 02, 2015
Label: Island

There’s something very unusual about “Ship to Wreck,” the towering first track on Florence + The Machine‘s third LP, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful: It starts already in its highest gear, the band in full swing and the piano hook zooming out of the speakers. The great majority of Florence’s most famous songs develop very slowly, with extended intros — think the harp-plucking that kicks off “Dog Days Are Over,” or the groaning organ that leads in “Shake It Off” — building to full drama. You might have to go back to Florence’s rough-love first single, “Kiss With a Fist” — whose pop-punk energy today sounds so distant from the rest of the Machine’s discography that you’ve likely come to associate it with Kate Nash or Ida Maria instead — for another song of hers that bursts out of the gate like that. And if you’re looking for more of it to follow on How Big, you may find yourself a little disappointed.

“Ship” is one of the high points of Florence’s career; another visceral tumble in the bedsheets, but in solo frustration rather than the coupled amour fou of “Kiss.” The frenzy of Flo’s insomnia reaches a fever pitch on the song’s explosive chorus, her paranoid, racing thoughts jumping out through her supersonic wail: “Did I drink too much / Am I losing touch / Did I build this ship to WRE-E-EEECCCKKK?” Follow-up track “What Kind of Man” starts off a letdown, but quickly proves to be the opener’s roaring equal, with the unexpected arrival of a thick guitar chop and regal horn salute that gives Florence the instrumental support she deserves as she excoriates an uncommitted significant other: “Sometimes you’re half in and then you’re half out / But you never close the door /WHAT KIND OF MAN LOVES LIKE THIS?”

It’s a brilliant one-two punch (maybe the year’s best), but as the album progresses, you find yourself craving more of that instant release. And it’s there, sort of. Almost a minute into “Queen of Peace,” it bursts into a tambourine stomp, with dramatic Supremes piano chords laid over it. A sashaying northern soul beat eventually kicks in on “Delilah,” with a call-and-response chorus about waiting by the phone that would make Smokey Robinson proud. But if you’re noticing a theme here, it’s that every song that features some kind of musical breakout does so at its own leisure, making you wait before unexpectedly hitting you with it. The rush that such a trick initially provides wears off pretty quickly.

If this seems to you like a pedantic thing to complain about, you’re not entirely wrong. There are no bad songs on How Big, maybe not even a song that couldn’t be generally described as good. It’s an exceedingly coherent listen, both in terms of consistent production and lyrical themes — the whole thing is permeated with the heartbreak and restlessness of the first few tracks, with recurring stormy and nautical metaphors to create the pervading sensation of Florence’s mind being adrift on a raging sea throughout the album. (The sleeping pills referenced in the opening lines of “Ship to Wreck” also cleverly reappear towards the end of “Delilah.”) It’s a very, very good album.

But it’s not a great album, and that’s because the production and dynamics are so compressed to soupy church-soul consistency that once you get into the thick of the LP, it’s virtually impossible to keep your attention rapt throughout. Invariably, songs start to blend into one another, and the second half does catch a little bit of LOTR-itis with the number of consecutive songs that could serve as closers. Part of the blame for this goes on producer Markus Dravs, who pushes all non-Florence members of the Machine so low in the mix that they barely register as more than clicks and buzzes on some tracks — for an artist whose best songs have so often built around distinctive drum beats (including one literally called “Drumming Song”), it’s amazing how little an impact the drums have on this record — but part also goes on Florence for writing songs whose swells and climaxes become predictable enough to be ignorable.

The really frustrating thing about this is all of the firsthand evidence we have that it doesn’t have to be this way with Florence. We’ve heard, first through the breakthrough Jamie xx remix of her “You Got the Love” cover, then through her two Calvin Harris-helmed productions (his “Spectrum (Say My Name)” remix and her “Sweet Nothing” guest appearance), how impossibly soaring Welch’s voice sounds whilst doing disco — she’s arguably better-equipped to deliver Loleatta Holloway-sized vocals to EDM than any other major singer of her generation. If she didn’t want to deviate that far from her traditional album sound, the ’60s strut of Ceremonials‘ “Lover to Lover” showed how dramatically she can beat Adele at her own game, and various songs throughout her career (including the bluesy organ shuffle of closer “Mother” here) have hinted that she could do an album of ’70s Stones boogie that would get critics to lay off asking Liz Phair questions about Mick and Keith.

The point is, Florence needs something more than swampy neo-gospel ambience for consistent band support. She has a voice that could solve the north’s White Walkers problem with one ice-shattering howl, but she needs — deserves — instrumental hooks and rhythmic forcefulness massive enough to fight back against her, challenge her to even greater heights. She gets it occasionally on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, and the results are brilliant, but the album too often focuses on the latter two-thirds of the album title at the expense of the first. Hopefully someday we’ll get the action-packed album Florence deserves, but this time her ship’s a little too sturdy to really bring the wreckage.