Available on: Island CD/LP/digital

It’s difficult to cast a cool, objective eye on the music of the aptly named Florence + the Machine. That Machine – a vast, belching juggernaut of marketing, PR and all-round media-saturating puff – is as liable to obscure Florence’s virtues as it is her failings. Pushing it aside, or at least trying to, I can say confidently that first album Lungs was a worthy enough debut offering; but listening to it now, as then, it’s hard to see how, or why, it caused such a fuss. There has to be another reason for this young woman’s mass appeal, and I venture that it’s her ordinariness.

People are drawn to that ordinariness, and admiring of the hard work, if not outright alchemy, which has transformed it into ethereal star power. Florence is pretty but far from the prettiest, and there’s nothing particularly rare or rarified about her talent: but through sheer force of will, and with a little help from the aforementioned Machine, she’s become a fashion icon, a sex symbol, a celebrity, a phenomenon; she’s made a star of herself, or at least had a star made of her. Her success is appealing precisely because you get the impression that it could have been visited upon any of us. Most of us ordinary joes and josephines dream of making something of ourselves, but tend to settle for a job in market research; Florence, though, persevered with her dream, associated with the right people, and was duly rewarded. Her continued success perpetuates the fantasy that we too might, at some future point – tomorrow, tomorrow – abandon the office, make contact with the Machine and claim our rightful place on the world stage.

Of course, she wouldn’t have got to where she is without “that” voice, or so people keep on telling me. I don’t have Florence’s voice, and I doubt you do either, but I believe many jobbing professional and semi-professional singers around the world do. She’s got real and inordinate strength in those lungs, no doubt, but is there anything distinctive or individual about her delivery, her diction, the way she pushes the air out? In pure vocal terms is she it all distinguishable from the glut of bright-eyed girls that graduate from the more reputable stage-schools each year?

I’m not the first person to remark that Florence is a popstar for the X Factor generation, a global audience that has come to prize a kind of karaoke virtuosity over that rare and wonderful thing: real vocal character. I’m not suggesting her voice is devoid of character, but the cup hardly brimmeth over, put it that way. Lungs’ songs didn’t really compensate for this; lest we forget, Flo really became a player on the back of her cover of Candi Staton’s ‘You Got The Love’ – an instant winner with the kind of people who’d rather hear a song they already know thank take the trouble to absorb, let alone assess, a new one. That’s most people, incidentally.

You’ll be unsurprised, then, to learn that I didn’t have high hopes for Ceremonials: the follow-up to Lungs, and our present business. But here’s the funny thing: I like it. I really do. I mean, some of it – much of it, truth be told – is overblown to the point of madness, making Goldfrapp in gaudy full flight sound as unassuming as Daniel Johnston busking on a street corner. But it’s precisely this overblown, almost proggish quality that has won me over: I fully expected that the Machine would impel her to repeat Lungs‘ winning formula, just iron out a few crinkles, glam things up a notch. But Florence, with producer Paul Epworth, who co-writes seven tracks, has instead attempted to fashion a bona fide baroque pop epic. I can’t remember the last time I heard a record so desperate, so determined, to sound huge, to ravish and overwhelm and crush all who come before it.

Orchestras swoop and swoon, percussions cracks and thumps and jingles, and there’s so much vocal multi-tracking that it’s often hard to pick out the lead – you’re besieged by an army of Florences. This more-is-more strategy is, on several tracks, very trying indeed: when the obscenely over-crowded ‘No Light, No Light’ dissolves, in its closing seconds, to an exquisitely pared-down acapella, you wonder why the billion other sonic elements in the song were deemed necessary at all.

On just as many tracks, though, it works: ‘Never Let Me Go’ is ocean-sized but demure with it – it could knock Roxette off AM radio with a mere flick of its heel. ‘Seven Devils’ has a truly gothic sweep (more ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ than ‘Release The Bats’, admittedly), and ‘Shake It Out’ is one constant tooth-grinding climax, enjoyably so. ‘Love To Love’ is one big gospel romp: it sounds like a drunk Lulu has crashed The Stones’ Exile chateau, and I truly can’t decide whether or not that’s a good thing.

One of the four stars I’ve given this album can be solely and directly attributed to ‘What The Water Gave Me’. It’s far and away the album’s finest song, and naturally, it’s the least grandiosely produced and arranged of the lot. The army of Florences is in full attendance, but sounding remarkably restrained and opium-hazed; as a result, the unaccompanied vocal break at the centre of the track coos rather than caterwauls, and is stunning for it. It’s genuinely rare to hear a pop song this lavish in the contemporary era, because few artists are equipped with the balls and the budget required.

Epworth is well aware of his privileged situation, and that it might not happen again any time soon; he’s audibly having the time of his life. He’s thrown everything into this recording, not just the kitchen sink, and the bathroom one too. Still, Ceremonials might be excessive, but its far from careless: the though the paint on the canvas is caked five inches thick, the palette of colours is thoroughly elegant. He’s gone for a classic orch-pop aesthetic, a little bit Wuthering Heights, a little bit Scott 3: though the music is post-produced and processed to within an inch of its life, there’s not much in the way of pronounced electronic instrumentation; his chosen textures are warm, organic, archaic. You can pick out the individual instruments – guitars, harps, cellos, organs – here and there, but for the most part they’re smoothed into one towering wave of sound. This is music created with stadia and festival main stages in mind: it’s designed to be heard from 700 rows back, message intact.

This is a bold album, with a couple of sustained passages of brilliance. However, such is its strenuous, unwavering effort to sound dynamic and anthemic and immense and gobsmackingly memorable, that if you’re anything like me you’ll be left finding it neither good, nor bad, nor indifferent; just exhausting.

Tim Purdom



Share Tweet