Florence Welch’s voice isn’t well suited to subtlety. That’s not what it was made for; Florence’s forceful wail was built for grandiosity, for widescreen, melodramatic lamentations delivered with tent-revival fervor and dense, cavernous instrumentation. Fortunately, Florence + the Machine’s second album, Ceremonials, realizes this, and behaves accordingly. It’s a massive, purposeful affair that highlights its attributes in agreeably epic fashion.
Way back in 2009, Flo’s first record, Lungs, kindly telegraphed via its title precisely what the listener would encounter therein by implying that Flo’s pipes were the main attraction, which, let’s face it, was the case. On Ceremonials, Welch’s vocals and songwriting are still center stage, but they’re sharing space with a panoramic, monolithic wall of sound that easily grants Florence – and her Machine – “epic” status. It’s not that these songs are long – although they’re rarely short – it’s just that they feel so huge, so expansive, that they threaten to overtake the universe as we know it. This is a very, very good thing.
Ceremonials is so vivid, in fact, that as it reaches fever-pitch status – which happens on most every song, truth be told – it threatens to become overkill. Each song is a moonlit, fog-drenched howl from the Moors at midnight; Florence’s frenzied caterwaul locks horns with pounding tribal rhythms and a ghostly chorale of multi-tracked Flos in an epic struggle for supremacy (Flo Against the Machine?), and the results are often thrilling. It’s an exhaustive mess of a record, one unencumbered by overrated conceits like subtlety and irony, and one that offers little more than the pure visceral thrill of listening to remarkably exciting music.
This dynamic, large-scale approach to songwriting and music production serves Florence remarkably well. Opening one-two punch “Only If For A Night” and “Shake It Off” telegraph her intentions well – she’s interested, primarily, in captivating you with the swooping timbre of her voice while her kitchen-sink arrangements shake you by the shoulders. It’s often beautiful, but Ceremonials earns its beauty through the excitement of pure expression, often yearning for generic concepts like unrequited love and spiritual enlightenment, but sounding fresh, reinvigorated in the process. Florence rebukes the devil on her back in “Shake It Off”, loses it in spectacularly classy fashion on “Breaking Down” (major Britpop/Moody Blues overtones here), even achieves literal ascension in “Leave My Body”, an album closer so full of wonder and promise that it’s almost too lovely to bear. Expertly channeling influences like Annie Lennox and U2, Flo’s muscular, textured songwriting is as important as her soaring vocals on Ceremonials.
Those who fell in love with Florence’s massive affirmation “Dog Days Are Over” won’t necessarily be disappointed in Ceremonials – they will, after all, find a close musical analogue in the chest-bursting “All This And Heaven Too”, a spiritual sequel that runs circles around its predecessor – but the sheer size and confidence of the material may prove daunting. To those of us willing to invest in a record that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the vocal acrobatics of Ms. Lennox, the mysticism of Kate Bush, the open-heart yearning of U2, and the bewitching romantic turmoil of Stevie Nicks, well, Ceremonials is a godsend. Finally, a record from a quirky indie siren that isn’t too cool to indulge in a little old-fashioned bombast.