This album strips itself down and relaxes compared to bombastic predecessors
Florence and the Machine's 'High as Hope' turns down the volume, but turns up the soul
Florence and the Machine have succeeded in walking a fine line over a 10-year career that saw them first come to prominence with the release of 2009’s debut album Lungs. The band’s brand of huge power ballads could easily see them filed as the kind of outfit whose CDs belong on the coffee table of a mid-level hedge fund investment advisor, nestled alongside the likes of Dido, Enya and Adele in an attempt to prove to visitors that the owner has, you know, “soul.”
Florence Welch and her bandmates have successfully avoided this fate so far in their careers. Welch’s behemoth of a voice, alongside a distinct indie sensibility, ensures that in fact their work does indeed have soul, rather than slipping into join-the-dots, female-fronted, adult-orientated rock mediocrity as they have become ever more a festival-headlining global phenomenon. Can they pull the feat off again with this, their fourth studio album?
High as Hope takes its foot off the pedal somewhat compared to previous albums. The instrumentation is pared down, the production minimal by their own standards, and even Welch’s voice is slightly more subdued than we are used to, as if she’s experimenting with the idea of simply telling listeners a story, rather than beating it into their eardrums with a heavy object.
The album has taken a distinctly microcosmic approach lyrically, too. Welch has always had the ability to belt out a song about the most mundane everyday occurrence as if she were Elgar and the London Symphony Orchestra announcing the imminent end of the world. Here, the mundane occurrences include apologising to her sister for ruining her 18th birthday (Grace), the pain of unreturned text messages (Big God), and giving us a tour of her favourite South London hangouts as a teenager (South London Forever).
It’s surely Welch’s most personal writing to date, and not all of the topics are quite so inconsequential, such as lead single Hunger, which opens with the unswervingly honest: “At 17 I started to starve myself.”
Welch even takes a dig at her own past musical excesses on album closer No Choirs, which as the name implies, features no choirs, and the assurance that “no chorus could come in about two people sitting doing nothing”.
The band may need to return to slightly more epic work in future if they’re to maintain their festival-headlining status, but as a brief musical interlude, High as Hope is a fine reminder that, sometimes, less is more.