Florence Welch’s otherworldly persona conjures up images of her flame-coloured hair, flailing arms and ethereal dresses, her powerful voice and harp-and-drum music machine overwhelming enough to shake the earth and wake the dead. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful reminds us of the person behind this goddess, and is described by the singer as her “most personal record”. It would be a mistake to assume this is stripped down, however. As Welch bares her broken heart and writes more about life and reality and less about ritual and death, her lyrics still allude to forces of myth and nature, and most tracks are still sweepingly immense.
How Big begins with the ironically bright and upbeat ‘Ship To Wreck’, introducing the messy heartbreak that rules the album. Rooted in more accessible themes and conventional pop sensibilities, this is a commendable effort, avoiding a reproduction of the thundering, death-obsessed Ceremonials. Fans may be disappointed, though by the regularity of singles ‘Ship to Wreck’ and ‘What Kind of Man’, as well as ‘Queen of Peace’. As Welch’s belting vocals in the choruses are processed into near-clichéd bluesy layers over unchanging drum beats, the device fails to impress after being repeated in three songs, and loses some emotion. They are, undoubtedly, good songs, and ones that will wow listeners outside her fan-base. But they fall short of the greatness of older singles.
The most beautiful parts of the album are its quieter ones. For all her grandness Florence is no stranger to soft, gentler numbers, evident in songs from the first album Lungs such as ‘Falling’ and ‘I’m Not Calling You A Liar’. How Big introduces a new quality to the softer spectrum of her vocals, and it is just as moving as her powerhouse voice. ‘St Jude’, a rather poetic reference to both “the patron saint of the lost causes” as well as the European windstorm, is hugely comforting in its smooth harmonies, prayer-like repetition of ‘St Jude’, and her soothing voice that is, for once, completely at peace. The song is about being “comfortable in chaos”, acceptance and making meaning from loss, and its effect is entrancing. Welch’s voice is light with feathered breathiness in ‘Long & Lost’, as she wonders if it’s “too late to come on home”. This melancholy track showcases her impressive range, control, melodic craftsmanship and expressiveness, without ever being excessive or mawkish.
The title track is clearly the star here, a glowing gem of hope and wonder set amidst the mess of destructive relationships and emotional turmoil. Florence has said that it is about being in awe of the world and its vastness, a fundamental feeling she would always return to; about “how to love in the world rather than trying to escape from it”. The repeated words of the title form the refrain, and it is simple but thoroughly captivating. Layered vocals give way to a full orchestral ecstasy featuring bright trumpets, providing enough light for all the storminess in the album. This is an intimate yet big, violent yet beautiful record, and Florence + The Machine have successfully found new musical and thematic directions without losing themselves. For fans lamenting the over-polish of production, the demos on the deluxe version showcase Florence’s voice in all its raw soulfulness— definitely worth a listen.
By Christine Tan