Florence Welch feared the end, that of both life and the end of her relationships. To tackle this thanatophobia, she turned to two mediums many others also turn to: art and religion.
I once heard a person say Florence and the Machine made them feel like they’d entered a New Age church, and it accurately encapsulates how I felt when I came across them for the first time. Cycling through iTunes samples of their top songs, at the time “Rabbit Heart” and “Kiss with a Fist,” I remember reveling in this booming singer and their equally majestic accompaniment. On one hand, Lungs swallowed me with its grand arrangements. On the other, it spoke to the paradox of relishing life while constantly being reminded of its fragility.
Florence Welch feared the end, that of both life and the end of her relationships. To tackle this thanatophobia, she turned to two mediums many others also turn to: art and religion. These outlets formed part of the foundation of Lungs. The other key elements include Welch’s maelstrom of a voice, her vibrant metaphors, and the theatrical rock band behind her. All of these qualities combine to create an album that lay at a crossroads of 2000s genres. With the sweeping storytelling of the Decemberists, the orchestral flourish of Nightwish and the irreverent romp of “Take Me Out,” Florence and the Machine were loud, clear and fully recognized from the get-go.
Named after the organ associated with life, Lungs struggles valiantly against the inevitable. It wrestles for every breath, knowing every single one ultimately fights a losing battle; “We are all too young to die” escapes Welch’s lips midway through, breaking the illusions she constructs up to that point. To face this realization without losing her mind, she indulges in bad habits (“Hurricane Drunk”) and blissful dreams (“Dog Days Are Over”). These vices never fully heal her, but they do help make it all a bit easier.
When “happiness” first comes to Welch, she compares it to the impact of a locomotive engine or gunshot wound. The otherworldly harp and revelatory tambourine provide a similar comfort to the drinks she turns to, drowning out the pressure of existence, or at least the disappointment it promises: Memento Mori. In this life, anything from celebrity (“Rabbit Heart”) to sexuality (“Howl”) comes with caveats and uncontainable effects.
Lungs resides within the conflict between pain and pleasure, where the thrills are “sweeter than heaven/ and hotter than hell.”
Welch conjures these thrills through vibrant metaphors, both religious and supernatural. Both “Drumming Song” and “Howl” take crushes to their devastating extremes, where prayer and morality fail against the primal urges of the human heart. On “I’m Not Calling You a Liar,” she personifies the vestiges of a relationship as a spirit in possession of her body. Like Bruce Banner, she resigns herself to the loss of control while simultaneously enjoying the stimulation it provides. But her seemingly most powerful persona, the mother of death, sounds the most haunted. “My Boy Builds Coffins” wallows in its own understanding, where the truth gives answers without any sort of comfort. “It just isn’t fair” she cries, and this remains just as true a decade later.
Though the above statement and plenty others stand the test of time, Lungs also comes up short in other areas. A retread of Carousel’s worst message, “Kiss With A Fist” tries to seek the fun into an issue (domestic violence) that people already downplay far too much. The previously mentioned “My Boy Builds Coffins” would be a perfect song if not for a Roma slur popping up in the first verse. Because of Welch’s otherwise sharp observations, these missteps feel frustrating in hindsight and dampen the mood.
All of these mistakes and epics come to the listener through Welch’s potent pipes, one of the best sets to emerge in the 2000s. They are another reason why Lungs makes for a fitting title. The way her voice builds across the phrase “You made… me… CRYYYY” highlights the chameleonic qualities which allow it to convey hope and hopelessness with equal parts conviction. No matter how loud it echoes, it also carries a fluttering vibrato in its wake, as if signifying that this, too, is just as fragile as everything else.
And yet for all its despair, Lungs finishes on a hopeful note. “You’ve Got the Love” acknowledges the futility one can feel towards life while also being able to draw strength from its blessings. Somehow, even with everything crushing down upon it, Florence and the Machine’s debut album finds the strength to expand against it and still demand more weight.