Earlier this year, 28-year-old Florence Welch released an intensely honest and beautiful musical statement with Florence + The Machine's How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.
The album, released in May 2015, was conceived after Florence took a year-long hiatus from the group, going through what she described as "a bit of a nervous breakdown." This caused her to put perspective in her songwriting, shifting her focus from themes of death and transcendence to just "learning how to live." Florence still uses a great deal of metaphor and fantasy elements in her writing, but they are parables meant to underline her own personal experience.
With a retro aesthetic, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a departure from the group's previous two albums. There is a maturity in her songwriting on this album that sets it apart from its predecessors. Florence + The Machine explore a stark dynamic depth, laying down dense arena-rock jams alongside mellow, delicate chamber writing. This makes total sense considering that she cites The Beatles and Neil Young as influences on her songwriting during the album's composition. The Beatles influence is especially present in the orchestral arrangement on the title track.
But the classic approach to songwriting is balanced nicely with the advantages of modern production, most of the album being produced by Björk and Arcade Fire collaborator, Markus Dravs, with Paul Epworth co-producing the final track, "Mother." Throughout the album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful makes full use of the natural richness of acoustic instruments, manipulating the sound-space in subtle ways, like the reverse piano in the opening of "Delilah," and using long, spacious reverbs that gracefully tow the line between organic and overpowering, such as in "Long & Lost."
It isn't everyday that you get to hear an album that is simultaneously exciting and reflective. Florence's vocal abilities on this album are virtually unmatched, perfectly matching the tone of each song and lyric. The amount of nuance she uses with regard to her her text setting is so personal and captivating that it pulls you right in to "The Odyssey," a label that she has given to the chronicle of Vincent Haycock-directed video singles released in support of the album.
There are some weak spots on the album however, and some of the songwriting feels a bit static at times. While the orchestral arrangements are rich and lush, it never really gets past that, or at least when it does it is completely buried under the rock production. Overall, the arrangements feel pretty safe and could have enhanced the tracks had there been some extended techniques or more daring part-writing, as yMusic had done in their approach to Ben Folds' So There.
While the album feels a little taxing in the middle, it has enough chill spots to give the listener some breathing room. Some of my favorite cuts on the album: the iconic stadium rocker, "What Kind of Man," the organically mellow titular track "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful," the powerful dance anthem "Queen of Peace," the hauntingly ethereal "Long & Lost," and the revelatory "Delilah." The bonus track "Hiding" has a really nice vocal hook, as well.
The Deluxe edition of the album also features three tracks not heard on the original release, as well as demos of "Third Eye" and the title track.
For more Florence + The Machine's latest music, news, and tour dates, check out their Zumic artist page.