With their third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, London based Florence + The Machine are not out to prove anything to anyone but themselves. They have seen a quick rise to critical acclaim since their 2007 inception: their debut album Lungs was released in July 2009, and remained on the UK Album Charts for 65 consecutive weeks, making it a best selling album in both 2009 and 2010.
Instead, lead singer Florence Welch seems eager to propel herself crashing through self-doubt and the insecurities similar to how her title track’s antagonist hurdles through the atmosphere.
The first track is a wide-open, cloudy day – the calm before the storm – and Florence’s voice bellows like a sail, somehow constant in the choppy wind. An upbeat acoustic tempo full of bursting, yet restrained, energy, “Ship To Wreck” is a fun listen, yet the drastic peaks from high to low are immediately evident the way the subject matter bounces from topic to topic.
Welch is not asking for anything except her antagonist to be seen clearly for what she is against what she is not – “there’s a different kind of danger in the daylight,” she proclaims in “Delilah”. Her antagonist never comes out and asks for support, but on the very next track, “Long and Lost” (which is actually the shortest song on the album) Welch does inquire “is it too late / to come on home?”
The title track opens with a gospel-esque choir shedding their reverence in favor of singing their praise in the key of funk. Tumbling through space the man is “making you a wish” on every shooting star skyline that he catches in rotation. This separation from the entire earth, “so big, so beautiful, so blue” quickly becomes a prominent focus in the man’s mind and the album’s theme from here on out.
There is a lot of imagery of a person breaking away from something else throughout the album. There are breaks from religion, from family, from friends and from relationships, and in every instance there is a strong case of sympathy for the one breaking away.
Things slow down with “Various Storms & Saints” as Welch paints a bleak scene with a bluesy brush that just gets bluer as the listener gets deeper into the tracks. “I can’t keep calm I can’t keep still / Pulled apart against my will,” Welch sings in “Caught.”
“Third Eye” opens with a vocal background chorus very reminiscent of The Who’s “You Better You Bet.” Welch’s main character is reminded of her “original lifeline” and finds light from within, inspiration that the will to go on is not tied to the things we have separated with.
This newfound peace with and appreciation for the lost cause that is our antagonist is revealed as a prayer-veiled confession to “St. Jude,” “we were lost before she started… I’ve always been more comfortable in chaos.”
The epic newfound calm and pure joy resonate with the album’s closing track, “Mother,” whose defeatist lyrics ultimately falter in the face of Welch’s own confidence that shines through her antagonist. The music crescendos unaccompanied by Welch over the last minute and a half as the storm passes and calmer winds return to the ship’s sail and guides it out of the choppy sea and onto sure, solid ground.
Ornately crafted and delicately executed, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is the coming-of-age record for Florence + The Machine. The band’s artistic expression is at an all time high, powered by Welch’s powerful, unwavering vocals. It will be a treat to follow this band through what will undoubtedly be a remarkable career.