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Florence + The Machine – High As Hope Review

July 2, 2018 | Posted by David Hayter
Florence + the Machine
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Florence + The Machine – High As Hope Review  

1. June
2. Hunger
3. South London Forever
4. Big God
5. Sky Full of Song
6. Grace
7. Patricia
8. 100 Years
9. The End of Love
10. No Choir

Florence Welch accomplished something quite spectacular on 2015’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. It’s rarely remarked upon, but the singer made the transition from big fish in the indie’s small pond to a bone fide Glastonbury headliner without aping U2’s stadium sized template or dulling her eccentricities. However improbably, she seamlessly reconciled her war cry warbling, lavish orchestration and pre-Raphaelite extravagances with a set of cripplingly intimate confessions – all the while delivering riotous arena-ready rock music. The album wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was a triumph of Florence being her biggest, best self.

She could have dined out on “What Kind Of Man?” and “Delilah’s” bulldozing power for a decade or more, but instead, Florence Welch, ever the artist, has opted to change tact and embrace understatement on High As Hope. Scepticism abounds. Florence has promised to restrain herself before: and yet, there is not a shred of evidence to be found in her back catalogue that suggests she can tone it down for five minutes, let alone an entire album. After all, the aforementioned How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was supposed to be a deeply personal reflection on a broken relationship, but the minimalist impulse never reached beyond the lyric sheet.

Pleasingly, High As Hope is a major departure from its predecessor. Florence hasn’t become a wallflower overnight, but she has discovered a much-needed sense of space. Breathing room exists in abundance, even as her vocal rampages in the still of night. On the seductive lurch of “Big God”, we can hear an unadorned Florence croaking and gasping for air between lines. Lead single “Sky Full Of Song” sees the singer go through the gears (and keys) with bombastic aplomb, but the arrangement never swells around her, instead her powerful vocal is left to heartbreakingly wither on the vine as she cries: “Hold me down, I’m too tired now”. No longer a primal force of nature, Florence appears mortal: vulnerability is no longer something she has to explain in words, it’s a state she explicitly inhabits and exudes.

This embrace of restraint and fragility is perfectly paired with a selection of confessional narratives that doggedly refuse to embrace pandering universalism. High As Hope is defiantly personal and specific. “Grace”, which eschews a conventional chorus altogether in favor of a hymnal chant, is an apology to her little sister. The track grows from its eye catching opening line (“I’m sorry I ruined your birthday”) to reveal regrets of a 20-year-old whirlwind.  She has now outgrown her feral youth, but Florence remains mired in the wilderness: “And you were the one I treated the worst/Only because you loved me the most…I don’t know who I was back then”. The track is full of unmistakably direct detail that is both relatable and singular (“I guess I could go back to university…The spelling is the problem, as is the discipline”). Thanks to this new found honesty, we no longer need the aid of string quartet to share her anxiety.

The regret of today’s 31-year-old Florence is balanced out with joy of her younger self. “South London Forever” is introduced by dreamy, sprite-like coos and unfolds like a summer reverie: “young and drunk and stumbling in the street outside the Joiner’s Arms, like foals unsteady on their feet”. There’s something endearing about the image of an elder Florence driving along the streets that shaped her adolescence, recalling the euphoria of not knowing what was to come and not appreciating that these highs will soon dampen. Older and wiser, but no more certain, Florence finds herself contemplating new horizons in search of meaning (parenting), worrying that those halcyon days, high on drugs and drink, were actually as good as it going to get.

“Hunger” is a remarkable creation. Nominally subdued (compared to her pervious excesses), Florence is in full disco diva mode as she details her search for purpose. Directly addressing her teenage eating disorder (“At seventeen, I started to starve myself”), her drug addled twenties (“I thought that love was in drugs”) and her years touring the globe (“I thought that love was on the stage”), the song is a tribute not to finding the answer, but to constantly posing the question. This could easily be a nihilistic waving of the white flag as a midlife crisis approaches, but Florence sees the beauty in the millions of young bodies the world over diving headlong into the struggle to dance and fuck and matter and, simply, be.

The album opens on a more austere note. Florence wakes up on tour in Chicago to a blackened sky and a foreboding feeling. The Pulse nightclub attack has taken place during Pride month and a shaken Florence is left to find solace in solidarity (“In those heavy days in June/When love became an act of defiance…hold on to each other”). “June” eerily echoes James Blake’s cover of “Limit 2 Your Love” in its arrangement, with the meaning naturally reversed. On this occasion, given the weighty subject matter, Florence earns her grand crescendo of portentous horns, but elsewhere she indulges in unwelcome and inappropriate bombast.

“Patricia” is frankly a mess of Florence-isms. None of them are bad in isolation, in fact they are quite effective, but between the call and repeats, warbling vocal tracks, dramatic beat drops, snaking strings and the momentous marching beat, the song itself becomes lost. It’s a real shame, because the pre-chorus is absolute dynamite, by far away the album’s best. “No Choir” is infuriating because she spells out High As Hope’s central conceit: “There will be no grand choirs to sing, no chorus will come in…it will be entirely forgotten”. Florence you are dead wrong: this is not a disappointment, a grandiose choir and string arrangement are not in any way necessary, sometimes less is more (and more memorable!). The track itself is a sweet rumination on how mundane the warmth of love is compared to ravages of woe – and,  after being blasted by so many theatrical choruses and bulldozing high notes, this idea of understatement feels genuinely appealing.

The back end of High As Hope is particularly disappointing as a series of wonderful ideas are drowned at birth by Florence’s vibrato. “The End Of Love” is so strained and tortuous that you find yourself actively rooting for the death of romanticism. “100 Years” is more eventful, but no less irritating as Florence indulges her more is more philosophy. This maximalist overload wouldn’t be so bad if Florence could summon the whip cracking hooks and propulsive dynamism of her last album. Unfortunately, all this mythological excess is tied to a detail heavy and dirge like song structure. Tender diary entries should not be turned into Wagnerian operas or lung-busting exultations. There is no shame in keeping it simple

Still, while it might smack of false advertising, it’s hard to blame Florence for being Florence. After all, no one will buy this record anticipating subtle silences; they come expecting the sun and the rain, the moon and the stars, the shipwrecks and the summer gardens, the animalistic rituals and the grandeur of Greek mythology, all soundtracked by exploding orchestras and blood curdling cries. It’s to Florence’s immense credit, considering the success of her last project, that she opted to take a more minimalist and intimate approach. The fact that she could not truly restrain herself matters little. High As Hope represents her best and most powerful songwriting to date, if not her best pop music. Simply put, this was a risk well worth taking.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Florence Welch attempts to embrace subtlety and understatement on High As Hope, but sadly struggles to restrain her grandstanding impulses. At its best, the album is defined by evocative songwriting, full of intensely personal detail and vivid imagery - and, when Florence does dial down the bombast, the results are routinely spellbinding.