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Florence and the Machine - High as Hope Music Album Reviews

Florence and the Machine - High as Hope Music Album Reviews
Another relatively stripped-down album featuring the titanic voice of Florence Welch is troubled by its overwhelmingly beige production.

In 2011, The Guardian coined the phrase “the New Boring” to describe the creeping malaise the UK charts led by Adele and Ed Sheeran and their ballads and sales. Like quicksand, the New Boring devoured promising vocalists like Jessie Ware, post-“Latch” Sam Smith, and Katy B into the adult-contemporary drears. By then, Florence and the Machine had released one album (2009’s Lungs) and were gearing up for another (Ceremonials). But despite working with Britain’s finest purveyors of boring, such as “Rolling in the Deep”’s Paul Epworth, they seemed immune.

Say what you will about the gale-force drama of Lungs or the Pre-Raphaelite witching of Ceremonials: they were never boring. Florence Welch’s vocals—the oft-maligned but best part of her band—make that difficult. In Welch’s voice, “Shake It Out” or “Drumming Song” really do sound like cosmic destruction is afoot due to, respectively, a hangover or a crush shifting his feet slightly. Hers is a massively influential voice, too; almost all the so-called “indie voice” affectations of today’s pop stars either come from Sia or Florence Welch at small scale. Even her dance phase with Calvin Harris worked: Who better to convey EDM’s big, unsubtle emotions than the high priestess of big, unsubtle emotions herself?

Where there’s EDM excess, there’ll probably be a sedate comedown one album later—or, in Florence and the Machine’s case, two of them. High as Hope, like predecessor How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful and the group’s MTV Unplugged stint, is supposed to be Welch’s requisite stripped-down, personal album. Unlike How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, it actually has a claim. She’s credited as a producer for the first time. The rafter-shaking anthems still exist, but they’re less often belted but delivered conversationally, like a frank chat with a friend who just happens to chat at top decibel. A couple songs attempt to be piano ballads before the big gospel choruses claw their way out of the arrangements. It’s a Florence and the Machine album with a track called “No Choir,” which says it all.

It’s also a Florence and the Machine album with every song produced with Emile Haynie, which also says it all. Like Jeff Bhasker or Alex da Kid, Haynie has a signature style: enormous ballads made of dusty air, like the dregs of Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die or multiple Eminem ballads. It’s boring as bombast. Some artists can make that work, like FKA twigs, who knows how to work with space, or Kanye West’s “Runaway,” which is meant to sound empty. But Florence and the Machine are a terrible fit.

“South London Forever” shows how the two producers are at odds. Welch is relatively sprightly for someone with her vocal heft, surveying her old drinking grounds with the wry eye of early Laura Marling. Haynie, characteristically, tries to turn the track into an anthem, piano and percussion chugging along as if on uphill roller-coaster rails. Nobody wins: Welch provides no anthem while Haynie unendingly hurries her along toward one.

Attempted anthems abound. “Grace,” an apology for the mess Welch left her little sister, begins with the Rachel Getting Married-esque “I’m sorry I ruined your birthday” and reflects amid jazzy restraint—but then, in come the choirs, because of course they do. The same for Patti Smith tribute “Patricia;” the same for “100 Years,” or “June,” a glum song about a high. Even when the swells work, they feel overly familiar and formulaic—particularly on an album with a smaller lyrical scale. Welch’s songwriting falls from the clouds of heady, sumptuous myth to the mundanities of being a big-name musician: performing (it’s lonely), fame (it’s hollow), and, too frequently, songwriting itself (it’s hard). But for every bracing moment like, “At 17, I started to starve myself”—the opening line of single “Hunger,” which Welch considered deleting for too much candor—there’s an abstraction like, “I felt nervous in a way that can’t be named” or a faux-profundity like, “I don’t know anything except that green is so green.”

The less allegorical Welch gets, the less she gets away with airiness. And while her subject matter is more direct, her melodies are more meandering, unmoored from structure. This wandering works for a memory piece like “South London Forever,” but elsewhere, verses stumble aimlessly around choruses to the point where three-and-a-half-minute songs like “Hunger” feel twice their length. At times they don’t seem like songs, perhaps since some weren’t supposed to be: “Hunger,” according to Welch, was conceived as a poem, perhaps one meant for her forthcoming Useless Magic collection. This explains a lot.

There are tracks to like here. The first half of “Grace” is coolly understated and could be affecting if only it continued in this vein. “Big God” brings in Jamie xx on writing, and the difference is immediately obvious. The song’s ominous piano line, storm-cloud strings, and smoldering sax from Kamasi Washington (who plays throughout) provide tumult worthy of Florence and the Machine’s highest drama. The track sounds like it comes from a more ambitious album, where Florence and the Machine still do what they still do best: blowing little everyday feelings to the scale of the Book of Revelation. More often, though, Welch sounds content and resigned, recollecting the stormy Saturdays of the past with a Sunday-morning penitent’s shrug and a born-again sigh. How small, how beige, how disappointing.

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