High Hopes for HIGH AS HOPE
Florence + The Machine’s 4th album is delightfully idiosyncratic
I have no aspirations of being a proper music critic, but I do see the value in reflecting verbally on something that primarily effects you emotionally. Like any other die hard Florence + The Machine fan, I ran out as soon as I could on Friday to buy their latest LP High As Hope, and promptly had a listening party with my roommate. Now that I’ve listened to the album roughly 5 times through, my biggest take away is simply that I have “thoughts, and for the first time ever, found myself looking for an outlet to articulate them.
So alas, here we are.
For context, I’ve been aware of the band since 2011, and even held them in moderately high regard as far as transient indie-pop outfits go, but it wasn’t until 2012 when the biggest show stoppers from Ceremonials were making their way across the air waves that I really started to take notice of Florence’s gusto. If only I had known then, that even this heightened appreciation for a modern band (a big deal for me) was merely the nexus between my previous casual appreciation and the less than graceful swan dive into die hard fandom that was imminent. 2015 saw How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful descend from the ether and if I’m honest, I didn’t love it at first. At the time, I felt that because it lacked the sheer sonic scope of it’s predecessor, that meant that it was somehow deficient. I can say now that in some ways, that album was and still is her strongest work, or at least her most aggressive.
The tipping point for me, was watching videos of the band’s live How Big performances. To listen to the songs in a vacuum is one thing, but to watch an artist interpret them is something entirely different. I use the term “interpretation” lightly, because what Florence does on stage is more akin to an exorcism. The ferocity of her stage presence is matched only by the energy of her backing unit, together forming an inescapable wall of sound. Even by her own admittance, she ostensibly feels out of control on stage, as if by some alchemy. What ever the circumstances that occur on the proscenium, there’s an inherent theatricality to her whole persona that I found at the very least electrifying and at best, bewitching. As I sat on YouTube watching full set after full set (Coachella, Radio 1’s Big Weekend, Glastonbury), I quickly began to realize that there were was no going back. As if by some celestial edict, I was becoming a bona fide fan. What followed was a vigorous retroactive scouring of the their entire catalogue. Lungs, Ceremonials, covers, b-sides, you name it. Every song was refreshed with a new vitality, even those I had initially glossed over or dismissed as trite. It was a dizzying but exhilarating year, as my very narrow doorway into modern music opened just a little wider.
Flash forward to June 2018, we now have a triumphant 4th album and a forthcoming tour to accompany it. I was curious to see how this process would pan out, since High as Hope is the first Florence album I’ve gone in to with a prerequisite fandom. After carrying my new found fondness for the band over the last 3 years, including 6 varied and unforgettable live experiences from New Orleans to New York, I went into this record with a cautious optimism. You could even say my hopes were high, but not quite high as hope. So now that I’ve sufficiently bloviated, let’s crack on with it, shall we?
High as Hope is something of an ambivalent effort, feeling at once innovative yet predictably familiar. The album plays more like a collection of B-Sides than a properly curated release. When one thinks of the band’s previous albums, there’s undoubtedly an overarching sound that governs each release, making them distinct musical statements. Lungs, the slightly drunk, witchy aesthetic. Ceremonials, the grand opulence of high church, steeped in religiosity and metaphor. And How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful; the razor-sharp breakup album that sees Florence throwing down the gauntlet, ditching the fairy dresses for pantsuits and going to war.
The same can’t be said for High as Hope, which feels more like an amalgam of all three antecedents, resulting in a collection of separate statements that don’t feel nearly as unified. Even the music videos so far echo this sentiment, the first two being masterfully helmed by A.G. Rojas (Sky Full of Song, Hunger), which establishes a clear creative direction for the album’s visual narrative. These two entries are shot on 16mm film in the wonderfully deliberate 4:3 aspect ratio. But then, Big God comes along and establishes an entirely new aesthetic with a new director, and yes, a new aspect ratio. One wonders what the purpose was of establishing an internal consistency just to abort it on the 3rd video? Not to downplay the evocative patina of Big God, which is delightfully eerie and frenetic.
Looking back, I can’t help but miss the intentionality of The Odyssey, Vincent Haycock’s creation, which walked us through the entire How Big saga in a feature-length musical film, consistent in its style from beginning to end. Even before the film was released in full, one got the sense that each individual video was building to something greater. A promise that A.G’s first two entries in the High as Hope collective made, but has since shifted somewhat. Again, not to downplay the merit of each video as it’s own unit (and I’m fully ready to accept that the full scope of the campaign has yet to unfold). I’m merely speaking to the impression the album leaves on us as a whole. That impression being musically riveting but with a noted lack of cohesion.
Bearing that in mind…
“Hold onto each other”
June is a solid opener for the album, immediately setting the tone of familiarity with a slight twist. Florence displays a restraint here that earns the cathartic heights it climbs to by the song’s final moments. It’s a payoff that’s sure to please Florence fans in particular, that know the power she’s capable of. I’ve found Florence is most effective when she’s sermonizing on some personal discovery. One thinks of How Big’s Third Eye; “Hey look up! You don’t have to be a ghost here amongst the living”. The listener can immediately discern these are words of experience, thus imbuing the admonition with some edifying, prophetic power. The same on is displayed in June, where we’re implored to “Hold on to each other” in an elegiac cry that’s as raw as it is profound, in a way that’s so Florence it almost hurts. The song concludes with a dizzying revelation that You’re SO HIGH, you’re SO HIGH, You had to be an angel, which effectively ratchets up the existential tension before breathlessly moving swiftly into —
“You make a fool of death with your beauty”
Hunger is the de facto crowd-pleaser of the album, and also the most deftly structured. I knew from the moment I heard this gem it would become a new favorite, and how could it not? It has all the tentpole Florence-isms we’ve come to love and expect, while also serving as a bold new anthem for anyone who’s guided by that nebulous idea of ambition.
At 17, I started to starve myself, I thought that love was a kind of emptiness. But at least I understood then the hunger I felt, and I didn’t have to call it loneliness.
I think the best part about Hunger is it’s universality; asking grand existential questions deep inside a pop-rock song. The sentiment of the lyrics immediately reaches out, almost inviting you to apply them to your own situation. That’s good writing, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s set to a pretty damn catchy melody to boot.
3. South London Forever
“Over and over and over and over again”
The furious pacing of June into Hunger comes to a screeching halt with South London Forever. This is the weakest track on the album in my opinion but I certainly can’t fault Florence for giving it her best shot. Every album has a nothing ventured, nothing gained track, and that moniker applies here to a T. I remember being somewhat beguiled by the name South London Forever whilst looking at the song list months ago, before any of the music had officially dropped. The title alone conjures up these palpable notions of unshakable zeal for the hometown grit you grew up in. The charming squalor of the local pubs and clubs that defined your early wayward years, all sealed and officiated with a raucous anthem of imbibery and debauchery. The Springsteen song Death To My Hometown comes to mind.
Unfortunately, what we get in the final song offers none of the joie de vivre that you may have expected, and instead plays more like a free association poem set to a backbeat. There’s nothing inherently wrong or offensive about this track, but I’m already finding myself skipping past it to get to —
4. Big God
“Jesus Christ, it hurts”
Florence has a dark side. The cultural perception of the band glosses over it, focusing instead on the Dog Days and the Shake It Outs. But make no mistake, that presence is there and I find it tantalizing. Big God falls into the latter, and as such, I have an appreciation for it that’s somewhat sequestered from the rest of the album. Previous tracks like Remain Nameless, As Far as I Could Get, and Midnight (Cosmo) come to mind, as Florence professes that sometimes she thinks it’s getting better, but then it gets much worse. What exactly is getting worse is left to our imagination, and that’s where Big God really works for me. Like Hunger, it invites you to dive into the darkness and apply it to your situation. Luckily for us, Florence has stayed in the darkness with us (Cosmic Love? Anyone? Bueller?), so that she may hold us by the hand and guide us through her ordeal.
The highlight of this track is when it turns inside out at 1:58. If you listen to it, you’ll know what I mean. It’s almost impossible not to lean forward here, as you’re hanging on every moment wondering where Florence will take us next. This song is dark, rich and thematic, feeling lifted right out of Ceremonials’ playbook, and it’s all the better for it.
5. Sky Full Of Song
“Hold me down, I’m so tired now”
Sky Full Of Song is a catharsis. Welch’s vocals rush over you like a cool evening breeze after a sweltering afternoon. I’ve always felt that if Florence understands anything it’s existential fatigue, and this song captures that in about as poignant a way as I can think of; just the sheer exhaustion of being alive, and the tole it can take on your soul if not properly cared for.
The video only serves to further solidify the theme of the song, as Florence lays horizontally, cerebrating about being too tired as she asks some divine authority to leave her where she lies. In some ways, this track feels like the wiser older sibling to 2015’s Long & Lost, in which both protagonists reflect on the futility of their situation. There’s a closure to Sky Full of Song, however, which leaves the listener feeling somewhat edified. Though musically it breaks no new ground, it’s the lack of pretense that makes this cut so appealing. Just unadulterated emotion presented in earnest.
“This is the only thing I’ve ever had any faith in”
Though Grace is very transparently an apologetic love letter to Florence’s sister (sharing a name with the title, Grace Welch), she is wise to use her sister’s name as an aptronym, so that a larger meaning can be taken away from the soaring chorus —
Grace, I know you carry us
This song wears it’s heart on its sleeve and is better for it. Opening with a touching, jazzy piano motif that blossoms into a robust, ambient overture. I’m sure through repeat listenings, the hidden depths of this track will emerge over time, especially once the live rendition comes to light. Grace is a poignant tribute that makes up for its lack of complexity with pure heart.
“It’s such a wonderful thing to love…”
Unexpectedly, Patricia is High As Hope’s Delilah. You wouldn’t think as much hearing about the song’s origins as a tribute to Florence’s inspiration Patti Smith, but in this case, our expectations are pleasantly diverted. What follows is one of the more satisfying hooks on the album, and what is sure to be a crowd pleaser, especially at festivals and in arenas. The upbeat tempo and rhythm leave lots of room for dancing, even if the lyrical content seems fundamentally at odds with the musicality of the song. Patricia continues the trend on High As Hope of setting poetry to music, resulting in a slight lyrical over-cluttering that’s notably absent in the aforementioned Delilah or something like Ship To Wreck, who’s lyrics feel so bespoke that they couldn’t be anything but musical. Even so, Patricia regains it’s footing gracefully with one of the most affecting outros I’ve heard in any song, ever. Repeating the phrase It’s such a wonderful thing to love, Florence utilizes the sacred power of repetition to drive home a sentiment, all atop 3 lush chords that are ever ascending. I can imagine this moment will be a turning point in the live performances, where the song suddenly becomes infinity more emotional. I know it did for me…
8. 100 Years
“Lord, don’t let me break this, let me hold it lightly”
100 Years is Florence doing what she does best, and is without a doubt the highlight of the album for me. This could have been lifted right off of Ceremonials and I wouldn’t have questioned it. What starts with 3 simple descending notes grows into a soulful battle cry about streets running with blood, begging the Lord that she may be shown mercy not to break this. If only she could hold it lightly with arms to pray with, instead of arms that hold too tightly. Clocking in at just shy of 5 minutes, 100 Years is the longest cut on the album and rightfully so. It takes it’s time to build and build.
One really picks up on the desperation displayed here, and even more so, the anger. “Hubris is a bitch”, she growls as the song marches towards its final act. 100 Years is the only instance on High As Hope where Florence does away with her restraint, opting instead for a driving, infectious rhythm and the most impressive showcase of her vocal range since 2011’s Lover To Lover (which in many ways feels like a sister track ). At 2:27, nearly the exact 1/2 way mark, the song takes a percussive turn which commands your attention as it marches forward, accented with Flo’s guttural heaves that let you know she means business. This track has teeth.
And finally, at 3:48 Florence unveils the highest and most ferocious allocation of her vocal register, the hair-raising banshee wail as she proclaims with a shrill determination that for the last time it’s just too much, the streets they still run with blood. This wall of sound is why I love Florence + The Machine. The lyrics are relevant but the music itself is timeless as the overture soars towards a lofty finale of brass, strings, and percussion in triumphant fashion. In a way, this track is very mnemonic of 2015’s Queen of Peace, albeit even more heroic in its final moments. This will no doubt join the annals of my favorite FATM songs, and I’ll venture a guess that I’m not the only one.
9. The End Of Love
“I feel nervous in a way that can’t be named”
As a filmmaker, I have always connected with Florence’s inherently cinematic aesthetic, so when I heard the dissonant opening strings to The End Of Love, an unexpected frisson of excitement came over me. I had to make sure I wasn’t listening to a Krzysztof Penderecki record for a moment. Anyone of you who know me, would know that’s a welcome comparison, especially in the arena of indie music. Just as quickly as the dissonance begins though, it then melts away to a beautiful minute-long string intro that could easily lead into any classical overture or film score. But what we’re treated to instead, is a remarkably emotional eulogy for toxic love. Florence has said herself that despite the song’s title, she views it as an optimistic piece, reflecting on the birth of a more actualized self. And the act of listening to the song feels something like a rebirth itself — guiding you through fear, acceptance and eventually catharsis as the sweeping chorus washes over you. The beauty of this song is that it doesn’t hit you until it does, and then it really does, all at once…
“We were reaching in the dark…that summer in New York”
10. No Choir
“This will be entirely forgotten”
No Choir is an interesting paradox, in that it is literally a song about nothing. Bearing that in mind, I think I appreciate the sentiment of the song than the song itself. Florence comes in immediately here, her voice naked and unaccompanied, singing that it’s hard to write about being happy because she finds that happiness is an extremely uneventful subject. So if you couldn’t tell, it’s very meta. Aside from that, the melody is simple and affecting, though by design it doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s an interesting choice to close the album with because it is so subdued that it will likely catch some listeners off guard that suddenly, Album 4 is over with such a quiet exit; almost like a lullaby.
That being said, there’s something very grounding about peaceful normalcy, and the redemption that can be found just sitting and talking to a friend or loved one. I think Florence is trying to articulate that not all songs must be high drama, and that very sentiment in and of itself has now become a song. Whatever your thoughts, No Choir brings High As Hope to an introspective, grounded close that by its own admittance is stripped of all fanfare and histrionics. It’s just Florence ruminating on being in her 30’s without anything particularly exciting on the agenda.
(You know, except a forthcoming world tour…)
With High As Hope, we see a slightly different shade of Florence. We’re all well aware of her ability to weave life experience into grand metaphor (Don’t touch the sleeping pills they mess with my head. Dredging up great white sharks swimming in the bed). We’re much less familiar however with Florence the raconteur, as she walks us through her various thoughts and insights with a marked lack of metaphorical armor. In that way, High As Hope could very well be her most personal work. Or at the very least, her most candid.
In conclusion, High As Hope works best as a collection of songs rather than a synchronous musical experience. Though it lacks the sonic focus of it’s three younger siblings, what we gain here is a much more candid insight into Welch’s neurotic and wonderful mind, almost like a musical diary of sorts. Charming and singular in its flaws, High as Hope is an album for thinkers and feelers, that serves as a notable addition to Florence’s oeuvre, even if it is a bit idiosyncratic.
Standout Tracks — 100 Years, Hunger, The End of Love