Florence Welch’s debut album of 2009, Lungs, lived up to the hype of a music press that had been utterly seduced by her harp plucks and tribal drum riffs, her otherworldly sensibility and her arresting vocals. She pushed us through fairy-tale dreamscapes and catapulted us through life’s dramas with anger and beauty, her voice as strident, sharp and strong as a deftly brandished scimitar. Visceral, raw and passionate, Lungs was aptly named.
And so too is the follow-up, fittingly released on Halloween. The arrangements here are even more richly layered and majestic; they surge with strings and arrive backed by choristers, while the narratives are darker and prioritise the spirit over the corporeal. Lead single What the Water Gave Me, issued as a standalone cut in August, is brooding and windswept, its harp twinkling eerily in the ether. As Welch mournfully sings of being laid down with "pockets full of stones" before the track swells to a choir-bolstered climax of Emily Brontë ’n’ Kate Bush proportions, images of her as John William Waterhouse’s doomed, red-headed Ophelia can’t help but swim before your eyes. It is magnificent – so it’s hardly surprising that, despite not having a physical release, it managed to chart.
But as a taster it is misleading, for little comes close to either its elegiac splendour or its subtlety. The disturbing, discordant Seven Devils, with its lyrics about being "dead before the day is done", is at least as sinister. It resembles Heavy In Your Arms (perhaps this is a Twilight – or, bearing in mind those familiar scales, should that be Twilight Zone? – soundtrack waiting to be commissioned), but is as intense as a blow to the head with a broomstick. Forthcoming single No Light, No Light – drum-chased, harp-gilded and hook-jawed – recalls the likes of Cosmic Love, but its epic proportions are too much; while the anthemic opener Only If for A Night, a mix of bombast and ballast, is too ponderous.
Ceremonials, which sees Lungs producer Paul Epworth return but ignore all restraint, offers the pomp, but somehow not quite the power, of Welch’s debut: this is all grandeur without any grace. The more weight and length (the average is five minutes) given to the songs, the less impact they have and the more wearied they leave you – it’s probably best not to listen to the 20-track deluxe edition in one sitting. Having established herself as Florence, the songstress of craft and great emotion, it’s a shame she’s now allowed her machine to take over. --Alix Buscovic
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