The glitter flecked stages of American Idol have played host to many a skunk-striped, raven-haired glam creature, and just about every pop diva, from Rihanna to Christina Aguilera, has flirted with gothic imagery. But when Florence Welch arrived with a trunk full of harps, massive Hounds of Love-style drums and endless mystique on debut album Lungs, she reintroduced a darkened art-pop aesthetic to the mainstream via (almost) wholly musical means. While Welch’s charismatic and visually stylized persona and stroke of good timing to coincide with one of the Twilight films certainly didn’t hurt as far as reinforcing her image as heiress to the Bush/Lennox/Nicks throne, no couture outfit could ever upstage the ambition of her heroic anthems, bathed in perpetual starlight and always reaching to graze the surface of the moon. Call it affected or campy, but Florence and the Machine brought a much-needed sense of intrigue to pop music, while giving alternative radio a voice that could cut through post-grunge treacle with a single note.
With the sole exception of the concise, scrappy rocker “Kiss With A Fist,” Florence and the Machine’s Lungs led its listeners through a hedge maze of crescendos and cascades, each moody and dramatic song threatening to swell to even greater heights than the one that preceded it. And yet, no pipe organ or orchestra could dare match her superhuman pipes, a headlining talent so outsized, one almost forgets the melodies behind it. In light of this, somehow, Florence and the Machine have managed an even more herculean follow-up on second album Ceremonials, offering up songs that are not just bigger in sound, but more impressive musically. Here, Flo finally arrives with songs strong enough to withstand the fire from her throat.
Standing out as the most laudatory examples of how to successfully carry a diva’s verve are the album’s lead singles, “Shake It Out” and “What The Water Gave Me.” And it just so happens that these two songs represent the two complementary elements of Florence and the Machine’s unique hybrid. The former, a slowly building inspirational soul number, is like a more graceful variation on the formula that yielded “Dog Days Are Over.” Its lyrics aren’t especially novel, Welch handing over cliché statements like “every devil wants his pound of flesh” and “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” and still, the power of her vocals, coupled with the harmonium wheeze and backing choir, sell them as something much more meaningful. By contrast, “What the Water Gave Me” is a gloom-pop triumph, escalating from ethereal dirge to goth-gospel hymnal. I’m just going to go ahead and call it now: this is Florence and the Machine’s best song to date.
The bulk of Ceremonials finds Welch aiming to soar as high as her orchestral-pop wings will allow, and producer Paul Epworth does a fine job in sustaining her flight. These numerous moments of theatricality are, after all, what she does best. So when Welch switches this up for the quaint Britpop sound of “Breaking Down,” it may be a welcome change in tone, but the song itself is far less satisfying. Just as easily, Welch can fall victim to her own overbearing histrionics, and the almost literally heart-on-sleeve belter “Heartlines” sounds even more explicitly catered to Eat Pray Love than “Dog Days Are Over” was. However, she more than redeems herself for these venial sins with a jaw-dropper like “No Light, No Light,” with emotional intensity cranked to 11, and draped in a deliciously sinister veil.
On some level, a snot-nosed ripper like “Kiss With a Fist” could have made a useful addition to Ceremonials, if for no other reason than to cleanse the palate between such decadent helpings of art pop balladry. But Welch has more than surpassed that single’s sneering charm with the audaciousness of the material on Ceremonials. Her voice has been the focal point of her music from the beginning, but now she has an equally impressive batch of songs to match it.
Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
Adele – 21
Eurythmics – Be Yourself Tonight