Absolutely Florence and the Machine’s most delicate album.
Florence Welch piano ballads: It seems more like a premise for a comedy sketch than an approach to a new album. What is the woman with the bullhorn for a voice supposed to do over twinkly keys and restrained emotions? But despite the promised muteness of High as Hope, that’s only a façade. Maybe that’s how the songs start, a few sparse keys and light production, but you can’t keep a good goddess down.
High as Hope is absolutely Florence and the Machine’s most delicate album. The production is uniformly stately, working with flickerings of reverb and echo, mostly avoiding an overly sterile sound. But Welch could smash through concrete with a triangle and a trashcan as her backing percussion. The horns are blaring, yet tasteful, and few of the stomping kickdrums will actively blow out your eardrums. Yet, it’s a wonderful exercise in just how charismatic Welch is. Lead single “Hunger” is a motivational anthem, with her chanting over a chugging rhythm. “I can’t dress, they’re gonna crucify me,” Welch shouts with ecstasy.
That’s a bit of an ongoing theme, as she said last album: “Maybe I’ve always been comfortable in chaos.” Or, as she sums it up for High as Hope, “happiness is an extremely uneventful subject.” She flourishes in the darkness and madness, even as the album attempts to sound cheery. “Grace” is gorgeously produced piano mope that plinks beautifully. Welch traces a grand total of regrets (skipping University for one) that dissipate as she remembers why she fled from normal life. “This phase,” as her mother described it, was her bond with music, finding grace in music itself. “The End of Love” is about as subtle as you’d expect. Double that for “Big God,” which, at this point, may be too on the nose for a Florence song.
Outside of the funky punch of “Patricia,” High as Hope mostly reflects the more tranquil palette of Beirut’s more relaxed songs. But, even for Welch, that approach becomes too much on “Sky Full of Song,” which leans too poppy. A choppy, overly pristine bass is about all that joins her on the chorus, but the sweeping pop ideals wrap the song too closely. But when she mutates the chart-toppers with a touch of weirdness, it blossoms. “South London Forever” harkens back to the stranger moments from her debut album, remembering hallucinatory details of being a young troublemaker in the city. Making love on a rooftop, sneaking into museums, getting backout drunk, the usual Smiths cavalcade of youthful lust and depression. The sticky drumbeat and shuddering keys make the whole project seem liable to fall apart at the seams. And by the end, as she cries “Oh God, what do I know?” Welch certainly seems on the edge.
By the album’s end, she’s declared “I did it all for myself.” High as Hope is undoubtedly the saddest record to come out of the Machine camp, and Welch owns it with that flamethrower emotional power.