With the band’s third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Florence and the Machine finally perfect their sound, largely by reinventing it.
Florence Welch’s concert hall-filling vibrato would have tagged Florence and the Machine as a baroque pop band from the start even if they only played Sonics covers, much less the orchestral arrangements that track their most well-known songs. But truth be told, the epic sweep of the average instrumentation often stands out as the band’s weakest, most overcompensating element, as if the band felt the need to compete with Welch’s full-bodied, multivalent voice. The combination could be as thrilling as one of the group’s hit singles, but it also resulted in numerous filler tracks that sounded altogether too busy for songs that tend to unfurl at morose tempos inside of cavernous production space.
With the band’s third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, they finally perfect their sound, largely by reinventing it. Opener “Ship to Wreck” recalls only the most stripped-down Lungs, but it trades the twee folk instrumentation of that album’s breathers for Fleetwood Mac-esque soft rock. Bright guitars at once drive the song and hang in the background, weaving into the rhythm section of chiming percussion as Welch’s voice dominates the mix. Instantly, the group reveals a shifted set of priorities, no longer posing the Machine as an equal entity but acknowledging the second billing implied by their own name. The band have always maneuvered their blend of art rock, chamber music, Britpop and white soul with dexterity, but it is here, in their moment of humility, that they sound most accomplished and intuitive.
Like most of the album’s songs, “Ship to Wreck” is a breakup anthem, its lyrics an elaborate metaphor of a relationship as a doomed vessel, almost a Ship of Theseus whose parts have been replaced and modified to the point that the singer can no longer recognize the whole. The basic arrangement prevents the lyrics from spiralling off into the excesses of Ceremonials, but the song nonetheless keeps Welch’s Kate Bush ambitions intact as much as her Stevie Nicks worship. Welch’s lyrics are sharper than ever, still filled with allusion and analogy but focused to the point that even verses now have the same singalong quality as the choruses. The title track’s bracing first line, “Between a crucifix and the Hollywood sign, we decided to get hurt,” compels you to listen to the rest as much as the punchy brass section. “Delilah” reverses the genders of the Biblical story to cast Welch as a tormented Samson manipulated into stasis by her boyfriend, finally summoning the energy to banish him and all other foes with her voice. “Third Eye” finds comfort in the singer’s own romantic woes by sharing war stories with a friend going through a similar predicament, dispelling the solitude that breakups create by realizing one’s pain is not singular.
Peeling back their sound allows the Machine to build it back up again, and for their first time they no longer seem an offset to Welch’s raw talent but a considered expansion of it. “Queen of Peace” mixes Burt Bacharach piano and brass with post-punk guitar pulses that work as a complement to the retro instrumentation instead of a disruption. “What Kind of Man” is a Eurythmics hit that never was, one in which even the trumpets seem to stomp with the percolating riff. A lonely organ and ghostly backing vocals track “St. Jude,” while closer “Mother” rides surf guitar into sudden explosions of garage rock. How Big may find Florence and the Machine simplifying their approach, yet this album may be their most varied, and it is without question their best to date.