After the tour behind Florence + The Machine’s sophomore record, Ceremonials, concluded in late 2012, frontwoman Florence Welch took a year off from music. What was supposed to have been a restful period was instead chaotic: with no work to throw herself into, Welch suffered “a bit of a nervous breakdown” during her hiatus, compounded by the definitive end of an on-again, off-again romantic relationship and her struggles with alcohol. As she got her personal life under control, Welch decided she was ready to write songs about her own life experiences — something she was inspired to do by Taylor Swift, an expert in that regard. The result was How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, and its songs are some of the most hopeful that Welch has ever written.
More organic than orchestrated
To do so, Welch knew she was going to have to leave behind the things she once sang about: “Ceremonials was so fixated on death and water,” she said in a statement announcing the album, “But the new album became about trying to learn how to live, and how to love in the world rather than trying to escape from it.”
Despite a conscious effort to avoid water-related imagery in How Big’s songs – a ban enforced by producer Markus Dravs – the album still opens with one titled ‘Ship to Wreck’. A few nautical lyrical concessions aside, ‘Ship to Wreck’ perfectly encapsulates How Big’s creative shift. The Machine is stripped down to brisk percussion and a jangly guitar riff that recalls R.E.M. or The Smiths as Welch howls “Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch? / Did I build a ship to wreck?” It’s a marvellous song about reckoning with one’s capacity for self-destruction without succumbing to it: Welch isn’t singing like someone who’s already run aground but is desperate to make things right and steer the ship toward less troubled waters.
How Big’s songs are big, but crucially, they’re never bombastic or overblown. On the record’s more dynamic moments – namely the title track and ‘Various Storms & Saints’, which feature nearly two dozen stringed instruments apiece – transition smoothly between their quieter and louder segments. And then there are songs where The Machine is stripped down even further: ‘Long & Lost’ and ‘St. Jude’ sound like they were recorded in a church, allowing Welch’s voice the room to just float before fading out.
On many of these songs, Welch looks to classic literature and other archetypes for lyrical inspiration. Sometimes it’s right there in the titles of songs like ‘St. Jude’ or the percussive ‘Delilah’ (as in, the Biblical character), on which Welch sings about holding on for a lover’s phone call with such urgency you’d almost swear the fate of the world depends on it.
On ‘What Kind of Man’, she’s singing to that same lover, her voice calmly conveying all the fury of a woman scorned (“And with one kiss / You inspired a fire of devotion that lasts for 20 years / What kind of man loves like this?”) right before the song erupts into thorny electric guitar riffs and blasts of trumpets. ‘What Kind of Man’ is the first song to appear in the short film Welch made to accompany the album, The Odyssey – which doesn’t just allude to Homer’s epic poem of the same name, but also to Dante’s Purgatorio, according to the film’s director Vincent Haycock.
The final chapter of Florence + The Machine’s The Odyssey is set to ‘Third Eye’, the only song on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful that Welch wrote entirely by herself. Over her own joyous backing vocals, Welch consoles a friend who’s going through heartbreak, encouraging them to go out and look for love again. “Hey, look up / You don’t have to be a ghost / Here amongst the living,” she sings. “You are flesh and blood / And you deserve to be loved.” She sings it with the conviction of someone who had finally come to believe it for themselves.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful can be bought here.