Alternative band Florence + the Machine’s fourth album “High As Hope” combines the vocal and lyrical talents of its star member, Florence Welch, with an extremely intimate album that demands to be listened to in one continuous sitting.
Nine years after the release of their debut album “Lungs,” the band has released three more LPs, “Ceremonials,” “How Big How Blue How Beautiful” and last week’s “High As Hope.” Their newest album takes a very different approach than the standout lyricism, mystical instrumentals and mighty vocals of the band’s previous three albums, and that might be for the best.
Many long-term fans of Florence + the Machine have been critical of the album, disappointed in a lack of standout tracks. It is true that this album does not contain many songs that would be typical hits, but that is because these songs were designed to build on each other. Where the band’s previous albums supplied their share of songs that can be enjoyed individually, this record is the type that seems to have been created to be listened to from start to finish.
This album is, without a doubt, the most intimate Welch has ever been with her audience. While her music has never felt insincere, it has always been wrapped in a layer of extravagance that seemed to hide a lot of the raw connection that “High As Hope” offers. That connection becomes especially clear on the album’s final track, “No Choir.” It feels less like a song and more like an epilogue in which Welch discusses her consistent loneliness, but acknowledges that it disappears in the company of her fans. After nine songs of Welch narrating her feelings and memories, she uses the track to simply thank whoever had been listening.
It makes sense that Welch would end by thanking the listener. In “High As Hope,” she reveals a lot of herself. The most personal and consistent theme on this album is loneliness — a feeling which is indicated through tone and explicit lyricism on every track. Unlike most music about loneliness, there’s no despair involved. Welch offers a unique take on her feeling of isolation, acknowledging that it’s something she struggles with, but is also something she’s coming to terms with. Through her fans, she’s been able to find moments of happiness.
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Discussing her loneliness is not the only way Welch makes the album feel intimate. On previous albums, lyrics are much more interpretive, poetically describing experiences that one could easily relate to. The lyricism on this album is just as strong and just as relatable, but it is much more revealing to Welch’s personal life. The songs feel like flashbacks painted with simplistic yet vivid descriptions.
One song that demonstrates Welch’s more personal lyricism is “Grace,” in which she sings about her strained relationship with her younger sister, for who the song is named after and dedicated to. Welch sings, “We haven’t spoken in a long time/I think about it sometimes/I don’t know who I was back then/And I hope on hope/I would never treat anyone like that again.” While it isn’t one of her more poetic lyrics, it’s far more powerful because she’s trusting her fans to hear about how being inconsiderate to her sister has damaged their relationship, something that many people would be hesitant to talk about so openly.
The song “South London Forever” paints flashbacks of Welch’s hometown so clearly that the listener could feel like they are there with her. Lyrics about driving past the places where she used to drink contain a feeling of nostalgia that most adults, young or old, can relate to.
Welch also finds a new way to use her vocals on this album. Her singing is usually boisterous, but there are not many moments of vocal extravagance on “High As Hope.” This is a positive, as the personal stories she tells are not extravagant. Despite not being as loud, her voice is still powerful. On many songs, such as the opening track “June,” Welch gives her voice more power by building it up slowly. She starts the song off quietly, growing louder with each verse. Although she never gets half as loud as she has on earlier hits like “Dog Days Are Over” and “Ship to Wreck,” the vocals feel more rewarding when Welch builds them up instead of showing them off at the beginning of a song. This album also offers a wider range of emotion in Welch’s voice. The song “Big God” has Welch singing like she’s full of resent and out for revenge. “Big God” is followed by “Sky Full of Song,” in which Welch’s voice has a dreamy sadness.
While this album is not the most entertaining in Florence + the Machine’s catalogue, it is the most genuine and mature album the band has released. In many ways, it is their best album. Welch has proven she can write fantastic songs, but “High As Hope” demonstrates a greater talent: the ability to create an album that sets a tone right off the bat and maintains that level of quality all the way to its end.