I remember first coming across Florence + the Machine’s music, after hearing about them for months in the hype cycle, on the radio with the single “Dog Days Are Over,” and thinking, “she has a really good voice, but this song kind of sucks.” However, I caught a live performance on Later… With Jools Holland, where the songs “Drumming Song” and “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” were played, and I was convinced there was real prowess there beyond just the technical skill lead singer Florence Welch displayed. I bought the album Lungs not long after this, and loved it a great deal. Songs like “Kiss With a Fist” and “My Boy Builds Coffins” showed the band had many different sides but could carry them all very well through the sound that maintained a gothic quality with the medieval arrangements, but have a stellar quality thanks to Florence’s huge voice and how the instrumental complimented it. Yet, through it all, there was an earthiness as well, making the music work as music, not just a display in skill. They avoided the trap of over-blowing Welch’s voice, and instead made it all work together excellently.
And I was so disappointed. Ceremonials, the band’s second album felt like exactly what I had always dreaded about musicians like this, and I not only thought it was an absolute failure of a sophomore album, but it sapped my energy to ever listen to the band again. There are few times I have ever been this disappointed in the direction a band went after only one album, with Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto and Arcade Fire’s Everything Now being a couple of the others. It was exactly that which I thought Lungs was not. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was a step in the right direction, but the songs still felt lackluster and Florence Welch’s vocal indulgences here were still too much, and the album suffered for it as a whole. Now, with High As Hope, I was interested to see what they might have done now and if they continued to re-discover what made their first album special, or if they had found a new direction that might work as well. In the end, I think the former is true, for the most part, but there are still problems here.
To be honest, I heard “Sky Full of Song” and “Hunger” when the two songs were released as singles, and they did nothing but discourage me from giving this album a chance. “Sky Full of Song” builds itself up lyrically and musically like an important track, but the song never crests to anything greater, ultimately having all style and no substance, all nuance and no stopping power. “Hunger,” on the other hand, suffers from the opposite problem, and is the worst case of any song from any Florence + the Machine album of everything being played to such a high volume and melodrama that the message beneath is ultimately lost. The song sets itself up to be a deeply personal reflection combined with philosophical ruminations on beauty and loneliness. However, “Hunger” contains too many grabs at accessibility and pop structures to work in this way at all, ultimately sounding as empty as the hunger it describes. In fact, I probably would have said it was one of my least favorite singles of the year just a couple of weeks ago.
However, in context, “Hunger” is much better, and High As Hope proves itself to be a surprisingly excellent album with Florence + the Machine’s most personal, affecting songs yet and an overall concept focused on grander themes than what Florence has focused on in the past. If Lungs had one flaw it was that underneath the veneer of classical sounds and elaborate language were ideas and thoughts that rarely got much deeper than a pond. It was the emotional pull of the songs and the musical precision that made Lungs great, not what it was saying all the time. High As Hope shows a great deal of maturity in this regard. Each song here (other than maybe “Sky Full of Song,” which I still feel is unnecessary to the album) has a specific point and a purpose in the overall design, with the concept of hunger being used multiple times to illustrate lacking something, particularly a place to call her own and meaningful relationships with other people. Over the course of the album, this is ruminated on in multiple ways. “Grace” puts this in the context of Florence’s relationship with her sister, “The End of Love” with Florence’s relationship to her family and where her family came from, and “Big God” using religious imagery to convey the same point as “Hunger” in a more abrasive manner that calls out the use of things to anything to try and fill this void.
Musically, the album delivers in spades as well, with the aforementioned singles really being the only major exceptions. “South London Forever” is my personal favorite by starting out strong with impressively restrained singing and strings that come around to a big moment at the end. Its immaculately well composed, and shows a degree of orchestration that does very well at bringing out the real emotions involved, rather than simply telling us what should be felt. “No Choir” also acts amazingly as a conclusion to the album, beautifully wrapping up every idea the album played with to this point with a tone of optimism and looking forward to what lies ahead, showing and convincing me as the listener that what I just listened to truly had a purpose and worked out by the end. However, that does not mean the album is without its weak moments. On repeat listens, “June” works relatively badly as an opener to the whole affair, seeming like a whimper in comparison to what will follow. It feel less like an introduction to the album or a beginning than social commentary that ultimately comes across more trite than is intended. I also found “Patricia” a little underwhelming musically, to the point that I actually forgot about the song after listening to the album multiple times. Lyrically, it might work well in the album’s theme, showing Florence taking in what this influential figure has to teach her. However, even these weak moments on the album are not enough to take away from this, since even the weaker moments fit into the album’s overall purpose.
This is the definition of something being stronger than the sum of its parts, as very little on High As Hope is noteworthy by itself. In fact, I actually had a hard time figuring out whether I really liked the album or not, feeling everything from “its below average” to “its amazing.” Ultimately, this tells me that High As Hope is not an album for all seasons, but does what it intends to do admirably well. This is probably the most profound Florence + the Machine album yet, and one that shows me the band knows how to write and perform songs for the sake of the music itself, not as a display of skill. Still, High As Hope is far from perfect, and represents a moment towards the potential Lungs showed for Florence + the Machine, not a culmination. Nonetheless, my hope is as high as ever that they are getting there.