I heard the voice of God on a sweaty summer afternoon sometime in 2008. Okay, it wasn’t God. But it was Florence Welch, and the song “Dog Days Are Over” was right on the cusp of its mega-hit success. The denizens of the school bus would co-opt the radio every morning, and I spent a good minute yelling for everyone to be quiet so I could soak up every note from the tinny speakers overhead. I, like any future fan of Florence + the Machine, felt transfixed by a witch’s spell. Despite the clutter of her rock contemporaries at the time (Kings of Leon, Coldplay), her early singles immediately heralded the band as a standout in both vocal prowess and writing. Because of this, Welch has been written about mostly on the lush allegories she paints the world in. Even Lungs, her debut, played like a haunting and decadent epic about God, addiction, even heartbreak. These tenants, the foundation of the house we’ve watched Welch build for the last decade, are ever present here with none of the requisite allegories. Her previous work hid the rawness of her emotional self behind sweeping images of cathedral ceilings and expansive landscapes. High As Hope betrays the vast emptiness of these places when you strip away the pomp and circumstance. Instead, it puts Florence herself at the center of each track. It’s a surprising choice for an artist to betray their established auteur, but Welch pulls it off with ease. And trust that I despise writing about musicians for their earnestness, as a woman’s vulnerability is as much a prerequisite for entry as emotional nakedness. But it’s the startling clarity that Florence + the Machine brings to their fourth offering that truly sets it apart from its predecessors.
Love (like previous records) is the star of High As Hope, and Welch has spoken frequently on this. In her recent interview with NPR, she states, “There's stuff about love on this record, but it's kind of a different love, like it's about the love I had for my family, the love I had for the place I grew up in.” Clearly aware of the might of her vocal prowess, Welch leads the first half of the record with a string of foot pounding anthems. “June,” the opening track, is a haunting recollection of a drug-induced love haze. It’s also a declaration of intent: we’re told to “hold on to each other” in the chorus. “Hunger” and “South London Forever,” clearly frontrunners for singles, are songs to be screamed out car windows. “Hunger” is also the genetic link to her previous work with its lush piano and percussion arrangements. I also haven’t stopped thinking about “South London Forever” and its aching recollection of the places she’s loved. (“We’re just children / wanting children of our own / I want a space / To watch things grow.”)
The true star of the album, however, is “Big God”—a sweeping declaration of the emptiness inside herself (and us) that loudly calls back to Kate Bush. In an expert move, Welch brought on electronic wunderkind Jamie xx and jazz maestro Kamasi Washington to lead the song’s production. A sizzling piano and deafening percussion boast a power only outmatched by the sheer physical presence of Welch’s vocals. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in Florence Welch. It’s a calling to the arcane in her work that has me contemplating forces at work in the universe. How could you not when “Big God” is a hymnal for the modern 20-something? Circling back to the aforementioned earnestness, “Grace” follows as a differing confessional. It follows suit with “June” in its apology to Welch’s younger sister (who she sings to.) There’s possibly nothing scarier than stripping yourself back to a piano and crucifying yourself in front of family. But the sins she repents for recall her previous records like “Dog Days” and “Ship To Wreck” about the annihilation that comes with our own vices.
Previously, these admissions of guilt were reserved for their impact on her past lovers and self. But High As Hope is so contingent on its connection to Florence’s home and family that it feels like a circle has completed in its closing tracks. Lungs, Ceremonials, and (especially) HBHBHB were an excavation of songs like “The End of Love” and “No Choir.” The magnitude of her raw spirit on “The End of Love” fills me with the feeling from the bus ride ten years ago. And the brutal honesty she presents on “No Choirs” about the totality of loneliness and the hunger to fill an emptiness inside ourselves is something even the most cynical of skeptics would fear admitting out loud. But it isn’t totalitarian in its distrust of love and happiness. Although she fears that love is just an “uneventful subject,” she chooses to embrace acceptance in annihilation. “This will be entirely forgotten” footnotes the record, and perhaps, the last decade in Florence’s artistic journey. It will only ever be this. Instead of running from the feeling, High As Hope closes out in the comfort of it.
Ting Ting Chen