It’s been four years since Florence + the Machine, glorified solo project of band singer Florence Welch, released her sophomore album Ceremonials. Aside from releasing a slew of singles from the album throughout 2012 and a contribution to The Great Gatsby in 2013, there was nothing but silence on Florence’s end. This all changed in February, though, with the release of What Kind of Man and the revelation that we were in for something a little different.
While Ceremonials was mainly an expansion of the grandiose, baroque songs from debut album Lungs, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful changes direction to cover a variety of styles of rock with a distinct 1970s twist, often reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac. The harps have been replaced with guitars and horns, but her signature vocals and layered self-harmonies give the whole thing that Florence vibe that was threatening to disappear with the change in sound.
The grandiose elements that made her music so interesting are still present as well. What Kind of Man’s transition from an almost a cappella introduction to an explosive second half feels very familiar, but is given new life with the rock arrangement giving it a harder edge than the strings and harp of past albums. Delilah makes an even better use of this technique, opening with nothing but Florence singing call-and-response with herself over the playing of a lone organ, before it comes crashing out of the gates as a 70s-tinged pop punk song. Going from such comfortable territory to something entirely different in the span of about 30 seconds was a risky choice, but it made for one of the strongest songs on the album.
Despite the genre shift, ballads still have a place on the album. St Jude features nothing but keyboard, woodwinds and a bass drum miming a heartbeat, with Florence’s vulnerable vocal delivery making it one of the album’s strongest songs. But where St Jude succeeds, Various Storms & Saints falls short. The song is set up as similarly emotional, with nothing but a guitar and strings as accompaniment, but Florence’s vocals lack any real sense of emotional connection to the music.
This leads into one of the album’s major problems. Florence’s vocal deliveries are rarely the type that can bring the emotion out of the song, opting for the grand and otherworldly rather than the relatable. St Jude acts as one of the lone moments of personal connection we can experience from Florence. Her theatrical vocal style is both a part of her charm and one of her biggest downfalls, but it makes those personal moments seem that much stronger. It doesn’t bring Various Storms & Saints down in quality, but it does bring St Jude ahead.
Her otherworldly vocals do make for one of the album’s most striking moments, though. The closing track, Mother, utilises Florence’s ethereal vocals and occasional outbursts at their peak alongside a psychedelic rock anthem. Her vocalising through the song’s middle eight and outro make the song into a veritable trip, ending the album in a way that was almost entirely unexpected and absolutely perfect.
Florence’s albums are always a treat to listen to, but this one is on another level entirely. The new sound suits her writing and vocals perfectly, the production is top notch, and the different styles of rock and varying degrees of intensity help to create something that’s interesting from beginning to end. If What Kind of Man initially had you worried, fear not; How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a true gem of an album, and the strongest yet from Florence + the Machine.