Artist: Florence and the Machine
Genre: Baroque pop/indie
Label: Island Records
Once upon a time, I really wasn’t the greatest fan of Florence and the Machine. I got so tired of hearing the incessant hype that I flat out refused to listen to most of the music. Except that backfired, cos songs ended up being featured in every ad, trailer, TV show, and movie I came across, and so Flo nudged her way in. I still wouldn’t describe myself as massively partial, but Lungs has some gorgeous songs, and Ceremonials is an absolutely phenomenal follow-up. Say what you will (and I’ve said much) about Florence Welch and company, but my gosh, she knows how to put together something breathtaking.
Much of this record sounds – fittingly – ceremonial, with a very wild and untamed spirit flowing clearly through it. It’s full of natural, breathing rhythms and earthy organic tones. Welch has noted that thematically, the album is inspired by drowning, which explains much of the dreamy, beautiful music – it’s just like being suspended in the waves, with gentle, illusory notes floating all around you. You will get completely and beautifully lost in it.
As with Lungs, Welch’s ethereal, frosted vocals are the driving force behind this record. The lush swathes of orchestral music are composed as a complement and accessory to her voice, which tells more of a story than any of the instruments. On album opener “If Only For a Night” Welch’s icy elegance leads a whole lullaby of glittering piano melodies, imbuing the music with a certain quirk and serenity that lifts it into a whole other realm. The track beams with a soft, romantic light and vivacity. The nebulous sound finds form in its latter half when all converges in a sudden firm thump of percussion, before freeing itself once again for the grand finale. Lead single “Shake It Out” has an organ effect which gives it more gravitas, though its initial air of solemnity gives way to something lighter and steadier with the appearance of Welch’s vocals. The chorus is celebratory, very earnest and stirring. The backing vocals are a stellar presence throughout, adding an almost haunting afterthought to the lead, and fitting the album’s theme perfectly. They seem to create that shimmer or reflection that comes with the distortion of objects in water, and on this track, add ably to the sense of occasion.
“What the Water Gave Me” should also be familiar. Its opening seems to be inspired by Eastern or Oriental folksy rhythms, rendering it more disembodied and drifting than the other tracks. The backing vocals here add an ominous quality that stands out next to the rest of the song. The second chorus is particularly graceful, with a lilting piano elevated to main player and a sense of real, tragic feeling dressed in something more unique and decorative. The guitars and drums streamline for a glossy finish. “Never Let Me Go” seems at first to sample an old school jazz-like motif, before dispelling into something characteristically foggy and wispy. There’s something rather deliciously 80s about the chorus, with an evocative synth background and bittersweet undercurrent to her dulcet tones. The ocean references are plentiful, suiting the undulating notes.
“No Light No Light” is, personally, the record’s stand-out track, and considering the calibre of the songs throughout this is no mean feat. Supposedly recorded on an all-night tour bus in Amsterdam, it’s a gorgeous and haunting song with a swelling cinematic feel. It’s gentle at first, the influx of music lush and absorbing, with the harp twinkling for yet more lilting romanticism. The folds of music are sumptuously interwoven with her wispy vocals, building gradually to a spirited conclusion laden with big backing vocals and accented bursts of musical feeling. It’s a rich listening experience that ought to leave a very fixed mark.
“Seven Devils” sounds very wild – not in that it’s musically brash or clumsy, but in its interspersing of animalistic sound effects and a clear sense of wonder and adventure. It’s a bit rustic, layered and thoughtful, and very slow as if to allow for reflection. “Heartlines” is folksy and very Celtic to my Irish ears – I may be lambasted for saying this but at various times throughout this track Welch manages to channel Dolores O’Riordan, Sinéad O’Connor, and Enya in equal parts. It’s darkly beautiful, rugged, and intoxicating.
“All This and Heaven Too” does a more playful and irreverent take on the fairytale, with less emphasis on the escapism and more on a mutedly excited love song. The song is full of life and boasts a rich, intensive palette of sound. “Leave My Body” lays on a fittingly majestic spread for the finale. Welch sounds more disaffected in her singing, leading a shrill shroud of regal notes with an even and pensive depth. It’s a tranquil conclusion, wafting out gently and leaving a vivid legacy.
So, just in case you couldn’t tell from all of the above, Ceremonials is simply gorgeous. A heavenly and uplifting listen, as much about escapism as it is about magnitude of feeling. Prepare to be swallowed whole.
Review written by Grace Duffy