Review: Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials (2011)

Florence + The Machine Ceremonials Album Art

Florence Welch is a force of nature. Firebomb hair, voice like an avalanche, hurricane of dance moves; she’s an elemental juggernaut.  Over the past two years, Welch and her Machine have been on an unstoppable ride, with snapshot performances from Saturday Night Live to Letterman to The Academy Awards.  Her seemingly universality just keeps growing thanks to her humble personality…and all this after one record.

If there was one complaint I had about Welch’s debut, Lungs, it’s that the album’s sound is disjointed; more a collection of songs mixed in with power-singles, like “Kiss With A Fist,” “Dog Days Are Over,” and “Cosmic Love.” On first listen, the most satisfying impression of the band’s sophomore release, Ceremonials, is that it sounds fuller, more cohesive than its predecessor. Not only does this create a more complete listening experience, it alludes to the fact that Welch’s sound is beginning to solidify, marking a confident step forward after Lungs.

Ceremonials’ overarching theme is haunting; harkening images of Welch casting spells in empty graveyards in long, flowing robes similar to her many costumes on stage. The songs themselves allude alternately to both pagan rituals and religious rite, but not in a way that suggest an emphasis on any specific system of belief. Instead, the imagery contributes a sense of sacredness that plays perfectly with Welch’s soaring vocals to form a spiritual combination.

The opener, “Only if For a Night,” is dreamlike and enchanting; a perfect pace to set the mood for the rest of the album. Following is the pre-release single, “Shake It Out:” the “‘Dog Days’ of Ceremonials,” Welch’s powerhouse pipes shine while not overpowering the rest of the tracks, as “Dog Days” seemed to on Lungs. Its lyrics touch on ghosts and possession, and serve to wake the listener out of the trance that the rest of the album promotes while still contributing to the work as a whole. Next is the first song which leaked from the album, the very pagan-sounding “What The Water Gave Me,” which is reminiscent of “Rabbit Heart” off Lungs, in its darker discussion of self-scarification.

[youtube url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbN0nX61rIs]

In an interview on updt.me, Welch described “Never Let Me Go” as the one song on the album she couldn’t quite lose hold of, and played with it much longer than the rest. Welch herself went on to point out the irony, given the song’s title, but the result is entrancing. The persistent chorus of “Never Let Me Go” simultaneously soothes and hypnotizes, captivating  from beginning to end.

The album continues to march on in a series of high and lows, until it reaches a definitive pinnacle at “Heartlines.” Where “Shake It Off” is an affirmation of positivity, “Heartlines” is a complex journey explored through a powerful line of tribal drums, which build to the most exhilarating release of a chorus that Florence + the Machine has yet to conceive.  The lyrics, though simple, take on a mantra-like quality through the progression of the song: “Just keep following the heartlines on your hand! / Keep it up, I know you can!” The effect could not be more empowering.

The next series of songs explores an array of different topics, from frustration and confusion to love and possession. Omnipresent in all of this is a particularly heavy religious undertone, which can be seen in references to prayer and ritual (“Spectrum”), the search for understanding (“All This And Heaven Too”), and astral projection (“Leave My Body”).

The thirteenth track, “Remain Nameless,” has to be the most unimpressive of the album. Though its lyrical exploration of the challenges in definition is interesting, the first half of the track not only melodically repetitive, but is accompanied by a pseudo-dubstep bass line that detracts from the overall composition. The dynamic layers added in about halfway redeem the song a little, but not so much to regard the whole of it as enjoyable. On the whole, not the strongest song, but not disastrous.

This lull is soon forgotten in “Strangeness And Charm,” which leaves the exact impression its name implies.  It’s little wonder Welch’s lyrics here take a more scientific vernacular, as the first verse brims with a sense of potential energy; ready to be put in motion. Despite the change in theme, a sense of ritual is still incorporated through the mix of frantic drumming and clapping. This feeds right into the closer, the indulgent “Bedroom Hymns.”

[youtube url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=am6rArVPip8]

If I’ve mentioned a spiritual theme at all prevalent in Ceremonials (Have I?), it hits a peak in “Bedroom Hymns.” Where other songs alluded, however, this one turns the jargon on its head to describe a tale of abandon and lust. The ragtime piano jaunt that falls in at the chorus plays perfectly against those ever-present bass drums, and together they run the track through to an enlivened conclusion.

Looking back, my standout song of Lungs was the exceptional fourth track, “Howl.” Chaotic and animalistic, its sense of release was transcendent when performed on stage, and perfectly complemented Welch’s otherworldly presence. Ceremonials seems to progress down that same road; at times creeping darkly, at others exploding in a wave of tribal drums and shouts.  What distinguished “Howl” so thoroughly on Lungs is mirrored here in songs such as “Heartlines,” and “Strangeness and Charm,” both of which practically drive the listener to the edge of a precipice, only to drag them back to safety before yet another push towards the edge.

This cycle that Welch manipulates so well is like ear cardio; the extreme rise and fall of these melodies and the emotions they evoke throughout the album demonstrate Welch’s spectacular vocal range and the draining catharsis in her songs that causes people to fall in love with her at live concerts. It’s the secret to her magic, and what made listening to her second album such a stirring experience. I heartily look forward to what Florence will choose to conjure up next.

Florence + The Machine
Official | iTunes

Rating: 8.2/10
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