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Lungs. Ceremonials. How Big How Blue How Beautiful. After releasing three intensely dramatic and cathartic records, it is no surprise that Florence Welch "thought [she] ran on a chaos engine." However, the delicate High As Hope is altogether a different beast. Soulful, surprising, and serene, Florence + The Machine's fourth offering sees lead singer Welch renounce alcohol and reflect, becoming more angelic than ever.
The first lyrics we hear—"the show was ending"—aptly take us back to where Florence left off, rounding off the Atlantic-spanning How Big... tour. Rather than a euphoric finale song though, the world that "June" describes is a dark, almost apocalyptic one ("the sky turned black"). As the song continues to build momentum, Welch repeats her chant, begging us to "hold on to each other," urging that a message of unity must be kept in this "broken-hearted" world (this perhaps foreshadows the message of centrepiece "100 Years"). Welch's cries layered over the ascending brass continue stirring the listener, until the frantically thumping percussion intelligently launches us off the ground and into "Hunger." On first listen, you can almost hear a wild cheer from the imaginary festival crowd for the intro. "Hunger" strips Florence down much like the bare house she poses in for the album cover; she remembers trying to "starve" herself and compares this to the innate human need to be loved. It's a profoundly reflective anthem, despite sounding light and uplifting. By the last chorus, the song has transformed into a rejoice, as if dancing in its own storm, demonstrating the band's ability to intertwine chaos and order—evoking a kind of rare tragic beauty.
Swapping reflection for naivety, the third track "South London Forever" recounts fond memories of Welch's childhood in the capital, and is imbued with a blissful sense of youthful optimism: "the world is at your fingertips." We are even asked the innocent, naive question of "what if [...] there's no [more] snow?" It's refreshing to hear this nostalgic, care-free bounding bop from a band who's signature aesthetic is one of high drama. "Big God" is another great personal reflection on being ghosted and the void we can try to fill by texting romantic interests, only for them to "not reply." The sound is reminiscent of the band's previous work, as the instrumentation and dark, growing texture is dramatic—but here in a more understated way.
Emulating the previous track's concise use of instrumentation, we then encounter the lead single "Sky Full Of Song." Peaceful and angelic, the fifth track (and closer to the A-side of the vinyl) is fresh, serene. Dressed with minimal instrumentation and percussion, cleverly used pedal notes from the piano drive the song on through its soaring choruses. It is a song which puts Welch's vocals at the forefront and showcases not only the band's versatility, but their ability to enchant listeners with graceful, delicate tunes as well as booming party favourites like "Dog Days." My favourite track on this album is probably "Grace." There's a sort of desperate sincerity to this track, dedicated to Florence’s sister Grace Welch and acting as an apology—“sorry I ruined your birthday”, […] I will make it up to you.” The honesty and pure sentiment of it (“I don’t say it enough, you are so loved”) is very special. Despite the musical brilliance on "Grace"—the gorgeously expansive, soaring chorus—the achievement here is how Florence bridges the gap between artistic identity and personal life so well. Indeed, she does the same by sharing her destructive addictions in "Hunger" and private memories in "South London Forever" (perhaps it is no surprise that this album cover is the first one in which she has looked directly at the viewer). This album is certainly a step forward for the band—as if the former Greek tragedy actress of “various storms and saints” is ready to show us life behind the curtain. In this way, "Grace" and "Patricia" almost have a "populist" quality—even their title suggests this, when compared with the lofty "St. Jude" references we found on the previous album.
"100 Years," however, is this album’s unrivalled powerhouse; a timely, indestructible centrepiece. Lyrics such as “streets still run with blood,” the “funerals [in the] city” for “youth bleeding in the square” suggest a political message, perhaps evoking images of the increasing acts of violence in London. We are urgently summoned, as if a call to arms, to “raise our voices”—not to “fight” but to “shine a light” against “hate.” Although it is in dispute what political injustice Florence is referencing (it has been argued gang war/ acid attacks; feminism/ empowerment; terrorism, etc), the sheer sonic strength it possesses cannot be denied—it is certainly a potent protest anthem.
The outcry is followed by sobering tune "The End of Love." An acoustic piano ballad at heart, the stripped nature of the sound returns us (fittingly after "100 Years" to a singer/songwriter exposed. Gospel influences can be found in the middle 8 (“Joshua…”) in the vocal add-ins and clapping, yet just as it swells to suggest some sort of cathartic climax, reduces to a softly-spoken Florence confessing “then he ghosted me again” then makes a heart-wrenching return to a completely stripped chorus. Sweetening this masterful handling and expression of emotion, final track "No Choirs" enters with a slightly comical opening lyric, performed acapella. Distilled with a sense of simplicity shown in Welch’s innocent word substitutions “La da da…” and lyrical ease, "No Choirs" is peaceful and nostalgically pure.
In fact, the words “no grand choirs to sing” perhaps get to the very crux of "High As Hope." The love she describes is wholesome, undramatic; not romanticised but true—which I believe encapsulates what the band attempted to produce here; an album which feels less staged and melodramatic, but instead sounds self-reflective and especially personal (shown in "Hunger," "Grace," "Big God," "South London Forever"). In an interview with Annie Mac, Welch describes the “super highs and super lows” of enormous gigs without a peaceful moment “in between,” yet on this record, we are re-introduced to an artist reborn. Florence + The Machine have produced a quiet revolution in terms of their identity. Away from the chaotic, sensational worlds of their previous albums, the healing High As Hope is bravely personal and intoxicatingly beautiful, and as in "No Choirs," Florence finally allows herself “for a moment […] to be still.”