Friday, June 26, 2015

Album Review: How Big How Blue How Beautiful by Florence and the Machine


Words by: Anna Julia
Technical Details:

Year: 2015
Genre: Indie rock
Length: 48:46 minutes
Country: England

Okay. This is the only thing I can say about the album I’m going to review: Florence + the Machine have done it again.

Alright, just kidding, it’s not the only thing I can say. But they have done it again, and it’s incredible. How could we think the level they had set with Lungs and then with Ceremonials was going to be surpassed? How could we think they would come up with such a masterpiece? (A masterpiece that yes, has its flaws, but still a masterpiece.) The thing is, I don’t know. What I know is they have done it again.

The mystery surrounding this album was great, and everyone had the sense of a big thing coming, so as more things were unveiled, photos posted (remember that revolutionary post with a photo of the title of the album covered with a Sharpie?) and details revealed, the excitement all the fandom felt increased exponentially. It began nearly a year before the album was released, in June 2014, with Florence’s statements to the music publication NME. It was more than three years since their last album, MTV Unplugged (which, let me say, was interesting, but not the best live performance I’ve heard), and the rumours started spreading. Little by little, we were able to know more things about what finally was going to be How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, just like a little video feature of the instrumental part of the title song (check it in the official youtube channel! It’s weird, poetic and fascinating!) or the first single, What Kind of Man.

To be honest, when I heard What Kind of Man, the first complete song we were allowed to stream on Spotify, my expectations about the rest to come were not high. I mean, I liked it, but I preferred the previous music styles, the ones shown in Lungs and Ceremonials, which were definitely different one another, but more of my taste. Neither did St. Jude, the next single, change much my opinion; I was curious and interested about the new album, and I enjoyed the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful video fragment, but for me, the excitement began a few days before the whole album was released on the net, when the fourth song of the album, Delilah, was uploaded. (I don’t know why I didn’t pay attention to Ship to Wreck, which had been released between St. Jude and Delilah, because now it’s one of my favorite songs, but anyway.) I was absolutely caught by those “holding out for your call” thrown between verses in the contretemps, by Florence Welch’s falsetto in the “too fast for freedom” bridge, by the whole lyrics, and, why not, by the name chosen for that character that names the song too (you might say I’m a bit weird, it’s not a problem to me). And what came later did not disappoint me at all.

I think the hype for me began with the release of the whole album, and most people will agree with me. In this case, a great feature of the record is its feeling of completeness, its feeling of entirety, and it was a feeling I could not recognize until I heard all songs. This is something in which Florence + The Machine have never failed: Their albums are not just, you know, a few songs foolishly recorded and then thrown here and there. They always assemble the songs with such delicacy, that it all makes sense when seen together, and every song complements the rest in its own way. HBHBHB is, of course, not an exception.

The most important point of this album, though, and the one I wanted this review to be focused in, is how it reflects a change in the band’s way of making music. In How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, we can hear and see there’s now the feeling of them being “a band”, not just “Florence Welch’s support artists”. Sure, Isabelle Summers (who is, in fact, named “The Machine”, hence the band’s name) is the craftswoman behind a lot of what we could think to be only created by Welch, but it isn’t until HBHBHB that we can really sense what’s going on between them as an established band. I mean, there are even a few songs in this record that are playable by a standard rock band! This was nearly unimaginable seen what they had released until now, but still the band has managed to set the bar high and surprise us with what we didn’t expect. The powerful choirs and backing voices are still there, the drums are still there, but now it all’s not as arty, not as artistic as it was before. And, even though Florence + The Machine is not precisely the most appropriate band to say this of, and I’m relatively talking, their music is more raw here. It doesn’t seem a carefully planned in detail story, but more of a personal record, a record in which we can see human feelings and emotions, and despite the partiality we have to show to Florence Welch -she’s who mostly writes the songs, in the end-, we also can guess a bit of everyone’s inputs. So this is more a collective album than a solo one, and though I won’t be able to check up on it by myself by seeing the band live, I’m totally sure this new feature of their music will stand out by itself in the live gigs.

Also noteworthy are the new brass sounds, which help maintaining that powerful image we all love about the band, and add depth and interest to many of the songs, especially the one the album’s title comes from, How Big, How Blue How Beautiful. I cannot help but leave you all a quote by Florence herself, which describes perfectly the beautiful sound of those last seconds of the song: “The trumpets at the end of that song —that's what love feels like to me: an endless brass section that goes off into space. And it takes you with it. You're so up there. And that's what music feels like to me. You want it just to pour out endlessly, and it's the most amazing feeling."

As for regarding the sound of the album, Florence + The Machine’s third record is a brilliant contradiction of styles and manners, resolved as only a band like that could. It is clearly simpler than their first two; not as “baroque” or layered or complex than Ceremonials, and definitely not as interesting (if we talk about variety, of course) nor a wild mix of sounds like Lungs, but it’s also more fresh and clear and defining, while not losing that special energy that makes them unique. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful surely has the Florence + The Machine trademark; they have only twisted it a bit for us to experience new sounds and music.

I feel there are lots of things I’d like to remark that I’m missing and it’s not a cool feeling, but I think it’s because I could write endlessly about this album. I’ve had it on repeat since it came out, don’t judge me. The most important points I wanted to feature, though, are covered here, so here you go. I don’t know whether How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful will be an important album for the next generations, or it will become a classic with time -which actually I don’t think so-, but I’d like it to, because this music is so unique that it can’t get lost.

Tracklist:

Ship to Wreck, 3:54
What Kind of Man, 3:36
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, 5:34
Queen of Peace, 5:07
Various Storms and Saints, 4:09
Delilah, 4:53
Long & Lost, 3:15
Caught, 4:24
Third Eye, 4:20
St. Jude, 3:45
Mother, 5:49

Only in Deluxe edition:

Hiding, 3:52
Make Up Your Mind, 4:01
Which Witch (Demo), 4:19
Third Eye (Demo), 4:15
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (Demo), 4:32

Other bonus tracks:

As Far As I Could Get, 4:06 (Vinyl box set bonus track)
Pure Feeling, 4:08 (Target bonus track)
Conductor, 4:52 (Target bonus track)

Featured songs:

Ship to Wreck
A perfect song to introduce the album, Ship to Wreck uses the title’s great metaphor to talk about something that from the beginning was expected to fail. In this one I could clearly see remains of the previous albums, retrieving a bit the baroque sound of Lungs, but also preparing us for the new sound of the band.

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
I’m in love with the calm start of this song, which I could say is the best one in the album, and then the entrance of the rest of the instruments. Near the middle of the song, the layering melodies create a perfect chaos, and there is a balance between the more serene parts and those chaos-imbued fragments during the whole song. Also, I love, love, love the lyrics. Have I said yet how much I love Welch’s writing? Also, the brass section during the whole song and especially at the end. Nothing more to say.

Queen of Peace
With brilliant musical arrangements, and beginning too with a slower part, just like the previous song, the strings in this song don’t last for long before an unflagging beating drum begins setting the pace for this bittersweet song in which I believe there’s more of Florence Welch than we could imagine. From a first listening, the Queen of Peace sounds like a character, but after a few listens, it turns more real than we thought, and becomes a person lots of us could be. Its musical structure is similar to HBHBHB’s one, but with more energy and determination.

Delilah
What can I say about Delilah without repeating myself once again? I think one of the things I like most about this song is the permanent presence of the vocal instruments: Lead vocals, backing voices, they all form the most important part of the song (let apart the drums, of course). There are, in every moment of the song, different layers of voice, overlapping each other in many parts of the music, and it all creates a special melody which isn’t present in any other of the songs in the album. It’s not until the end of the song that the rest of the instruments get prominence, making for a perfect close.

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