Florence + The Machine: ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ Review


There are few artists that portray heart and emotion better than Florence + The Machine. Florence Welch, in particular, lays her heart on the table and presents it to us with that iconic tone of hers. She is haunting and driving, clear as a clarion call and mysterious as the sea. She connects us in our foolishness even as she jumps out of the social norm. In this album, she uses her incredible vocal and emotional range to deal mostly the challenge of, shall we say, difficult relationships, of love and loss. She is a true chanteuse, she tells stories with her songs, albeit through hints and pictures. They’re not straight-forward stories; her narrative arc is the equivalent to abstract art. She hints, she points, and she paints a brief vignette evoking emotions and memories within us without fully filling out the story. She allows us to bring our own experiences to her work and connect with it in unique ways.

We often can be our own worst enemies as she describes in “Ship to Wreck, where I “…can’t help but pull the earth around me, to make my bed… Did I build this ship to wreck?” We sabotage our own lives, our relationships and those around us. We turn around and wonder what we have done: “And good God, under starry skies we are lost,/And into the breach we got tossed,/And the water’s coming in fast!”

“What Kind of Man” is a perfect example where the music ideally melds with the lyrics to make a great song. It starts out with a quiet but driving rhythm, quietly insistent on the intensity of desire of love within a broken relationship: “And with one kiss/You inspired a fire of devotion/That lasted 20 years/What kind of man loves like this.” She turns up the wattage to ask: “What kind of man loves like this/What kind of man?” Lest we forget, it’s not enough to have this great idea of a song, but she has the dynamic and vocal range to perform it. She has the ability to start with that haunting, halting beginning which builds to crying out the question she’s really asking herself. That’s some serious singing chops.

“How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” is musically diverse yet makes a beautifully, coherent whole. A light rhythmic starts leads into a lovely lilt on “every skyline.” In the middle you have a solid, pop rhythm, backed by drums then return to the light rhythm on the chorus. All of which leads to the gorgeous, large brass on the end, layering on all of the percussion completing with quieter strings.

Those same strings lead into “Queen of Peace” until the drum beat gets it moving toward oblivion: “Suddenly I’m overcome/Dissolving like the setting sun/Like a boat into oblivion/Cause you’re driving me away/Now you have me on the run/The damage is already done/Come on, is this what you want?/Cause you’re driving me away.” We sense the gut-wrenching pain of loss of relationships that continues even after the loss for both partners. How do you continue to love when “His only son/Cut down, but the battle won/Oh, what is it worth/When all that’s left is hurt?” How do you receive love, let alone give it?

Florence, once again, sings a haunting song of the pain of a failed relationship and recovery from it in “Various Storms & Saints.” Never quite sure where we fell into the throws of the other, we must learn to let go: “Somewhere in the belly of the beast/But you took your toll on me/So I gave myself over willingly/You got a hold on me/And I don’t know how I don’t just stand outside and scream/I am teaching myself how to be free.” The path out of this seemingly endless morass, she suggests, is to forgive yourself: ”You don’t need no edge to cling from/Your heart is there, it’s in your hands/I know it seems like forever/I know it seems like an age/But one day this will be over/I swear it’s not so far away/And people just untie themselves/Uncurling lifelines/If you could just forgive yourself.”

Delilah is a brilliant song, simultaneously taunting and empathetic about the dangers of being addicted to a person using Samson’s addiction to Delilah as the model. Our addiction is for a reason, Delilah takes us to another place: “It’s a different kind of danger/And the bells are ringing out/And I’m calling for my mother/As I pull the pillars down/It’s a different kind of danger/And my feet are spinning around/Never knew I was a dancer/’Till Delilah showed me how.” As the song progresses, it beats into us, sonically and lyrically, those very dangers: “Strung up, strung out for your love/Hang in, hung up, it’s so rough/I’m wrung and ringing out/Why can’t you let me know?”

Trying to reconnect is a challenge captured well in “Long & Lost.” There is deep cacophony of layers background, feelings and thought around the attempt to reconnect: ”Is it too late to come on home?/Are all those bridges now old stone?/Is it too late to come on home?/Can the city forgive? I hear its sad song.”

Letting go is hard, even when you know it’s best. It’s even difficult to stay away. There can be a kind of hell within a relationship, but pulling out of it doesn’t, thereby, join you into heaven. “Caught” captures the dilemma well: “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do/To try and keep from calling you/Well, can my dreams keep coming true?/How can they?/Cause when I sleep, I never dream of you.” Most telling is her last verse: “And I was thrashing on the line/Somewhere between/Desperate and divine/I can’t keep calm, I can’t keep still/Persephone will have her fill.” As you may recall, Persephone is the wife of Hades whose job is to bring about the curses of men on souls. Here, this relationship and its loss is the curse upon her head.

Continuing the theme of relationship recovery in “Third Eye”: “’Cause there’s a hole where your heart lies/and I can see it with my third eye./And oh my touch is madness/You come away, you don’t know how.” In this recovery, we reminded to call on our original lifeline, ourselves and truly living rather than living like a ghost.

“St. Jude” is all about the inter-relationship skirmishes we have, verbal and otherwise, in which there are no winners. This song almost seems a bit of sonic pointillism with the melody slightly darting in and out with a rhythmic undertone keeping it together. So even as she raises the prospect of the patron saint of lost causes helping her in the midst of the storm, she recognizes her own culpability: “St. Jude; somehow she knew/And she came to give her/blessing while causing devastation/And I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, I just had to mention/Grabbing your attention.” I love the repeating “St. Jude” sung as a chant permeating the very air around us.

In “Mother”, she first calls upon God to let her wallow in her grief: “And oh Lord, won’t you leave me/Leave me just like this?/Cause I belong to the ground now/I want no more than this”. Can she be protected from herself: “How I long for the autumn/The sun keeps burning deep/Every stone in this city keeps reminding me/Can you protect me from what I want?/The love I let in, it left me so lost “ I love the layered music, especially the electric guitar that verges on the discordant side, to allow us a sense of the chaos of lost love.

The bonus tracks begin with an upbeat tune in “Hiding” which belie the lyrics: “I think you hide/When all the world’s asleep and tired/You cry a little, so do I, so do I/I think you hide/And you don’t have to tell me why/You cry a little, so do I, so do I” We see the attempt to build back amidst the pain: “I know you’ve tried/But something stops you every time/You cry a little, so do I, so do I/And it’s your pride/That’s keeping us still so far apart/But if you give a little, so will I, so will I”

In “Make Up Your Mind” is about being all in or a clean cut. Here vocals and pulsing drums back up this this. Move on or move out. In the demo track “Which Witch,” we feel persecuted because we’re trying to build the relationship, yet we never seem to learn to build a genuinely great relationship. I love the intensity, almost screaming out the pain the ending with that cry at the end.

The next couple songs give3 you a sense of the musical experimentation leading to the final product. The Third Eye demo has some great stuff, but you see why that “original life oooh aaa” clearly wasn’t the same level as the rest. It’s a little more challenging in the demo of “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful;” this seems as an equally good alternative.

Each song on this album is a gem and a microcosm of the whole; put together as a whole, the album is nothing short of brilliant with the one possible blemish that the same themes were investigated throughout. While it makes sense that it was all about relationship, the challenges with those relationships covered some fairly similar ground. Different perspectives help, so this is a small criticism, but I think a little more diversity of theme could help. That doesn’t change the fact that this is fabulous.