Intersections posts

ALBUM REVIEW: Florence + the Machine’s Ceremonials

Originally published Oct. 23, 2011 on Intersections.

It’s out! It’s out! It’s out!

When I posted about the release of “Shake It Out”, I predicted the album would leak by the 25th–it appears I grossly underestimated the Internet’s ability to bring me good things. Weighing in at 15 tracks plus 5 extras, the album’s been like a book I can’t put down: it’s pretty much taken over my life for the last two days.

Overall, Ceremonials is of firmer, darker, grittier stuff than Lungs; Flo’s wail is more of a belt or a bellow here, the instrumentation is more robust and where Lungs may have relied too heavily on Flo’s voice and presence, Ceremonials shifts a good deal of focus to the musicians behind the voice. In terms of subject matter, Ceremonials is more about the corners of your headspace and the things you think and feel when you’re alone–it’s more intimate than, say, the exuberance and extroversion of “Dog Days Are Over” or “Kiss With a Fist”.

After the jump, my thoughts on Flo’s sophomore effort. Get your hands on it where you can, when you can–it’s good stuff.

Most of Flo’s songs follow a familiar pattern: they start small, with a sprinkling of harp or guitar, and layers are added atop layers until they burst into bloom with her booming, echoing wail to pull the rush from the elaborate maelstrom of sound. Ceremonials as an album works sort of the same way: opening track “Only if for a Night” pulls that haunting voice over a regimented harp line to cast the opening lines of Flo’s spell. “It was all so strange and so surreal,” she sings, and then we’re off on Flo’s ride with the rallying, anthemic “Shake It Out”. It’s clear from the get-go that this is the album’s lead single: it’s eminently listenable, uplifting, and well-constructed.

By the third track in, Flo has begun to brood. “What the Water Gave Me” was released as a buzz single a while ago–check out the video–and it’s clear why: it’s catchy without relinquishing its meaning. It and “Never Let Me Go”, the track immediately after, play on the biggest and most apparent theme of the album: the rolling, swelling, crashing, murky feeling of being underwater. The murkiness never really leaves: for the rest of the album, Florence plays on this troubled, roiling section of her headspace.

There are, however, some pleasant surprises: the duo of “Breaking Down” and “Lover to Lover” are worth multiple listens. “Breaking Down” is just lovely–Flo branches out from her patent brooding murk and makes use of her piano and her strings, creating a lovely bit of gloomy, gothic, piano-rock-influenced whimsy. It’s a bittersweet jaunt I can’t stop listening to–lucky for me, the deluxe album comes with an acoustic, harp-driven version that’s just gorgeous. “Lover to Lover” shows off a bit of soul and groove: you can easily picture a grinning, bopping Flo swaying back and forth behind her mic. The album ends with a bang, too–“Remain Nameless” is a gutsy play, a synth-and-bass-driven work of art that would make The xx proud. “Strangeness and Charm” is just that–a spellbinding, breathless rush of rhythm and hush. And album closer “Bedroom Hymns” takes those thumping bass lines that have been impatiently straining at the edges of every other track and lets them loose.

Overall, Ceremonials is everything a sophomore album should be and more. It’s the same Flo behind the new arrangements and darker, more intricate production, but she’s grown and matured, refining her sound and bringing some Bat for Lashes-style gothic pop into her bag of tricks. (Seriously–for some serious deja vu, listen to the album, then listen to Natasha Khan whisper and moan on “Daniel”.) Flo’s aesthetic for much of the Lungs era played up the harps and the birds and the whimsy–I can’t wait to see what this era brings.

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