Tuesday, December 1, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1428: Florence and the Machine

After a lovely bit of heavy metal, I like to enjoy a little alternative pop. Actually, I just listen to whatever the CD Odyssey offers up next. That’s how random works.

Disc 1428 is…. High as Hope

Artist: Florence and the Machine

Year of Release: 2018

What’s up with the Cover? With the unfinished wall and that guarded but vulnerable expression, I can’t tell if Florence is going to beg for some change or demand an explanation as to why the renovations still aren’t done in the east wing.

How I Came To Know It: I was already a fan of Florence and the Machine dating back to 2010’s “Between Two Lungs.” Sheila bought that album, but by the time “High as Hope” came out her interest in buying music had waned, so this one was all me.

I know, dear readers. I am also troubled that someone’s interest in buying music could wane. What would that feel like? But I digress…

How It Stacks Up: I have three Florence and the Machine albums. Of those three, I put “High as Hope” in at #2, or…the middle.

Ratings: 3 stars

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “can the travails of a successful socialite be emotionally engaging?” Florence and the Machine’s “High as Hope” will answer you with a surprising ‘yes’. It shouldn’t really be that surprising, though – art is art, and people are people. Florence Welch is an artist, and both able and willing to wear her heart on her sleeve. “High as Hope” is an unabashed look at her life, loves, fears and flaws.

Nothing exemplifies Welch’s willingness to bare her soul as “Hunger” which digs into unhealthy relationships with both food and drugs. It is also the album’s standout tune, capturing what Florence and the Machine do best, which is to pair an evocative turn of phrase (in this case, “we all have a hunger”) with a powerful pop hook that makes you want to spin around in a field while looking skyward. Yes, it is a bit overwrought, but overwrought works for her. She’s kind of the English pop singer version of Ronnie James Dio; everything she says seems important.

Like Dio, a key reason for this is Welch’s vocals. Her theatrical trill and natural room-filling power and range capture and hold your attention from the first notes. She’s wise enough to not just blast out big notes as well, constructing songs that have a natural swell which makes you anticipate and appreciate the well-placed crescendo when it finally lands.

So even when she’s just recollecting carefree nights on the town, as she does on “South London Forever” it still seems somehow important, even though all that ‘s happening is drinking, dropping ecstasy and meeting boys.

To be fair, it doesn’t always work, and there are times when the effort to be profound slogs a bit with an affected profundity that doesn’t objectively measure up to the topic at hand. On “Grace” lines like:

“I'm sorry I ruined your birthday
I guess I could go back to University
Try and make my mother proud
Stop this phase I'm in”

Feel a bit trite against the swelling import of the song and Welch’s vocals. That said, by the end she’s done such a solid version of recounting a trip on psychedelics which featured some regret and bad behaviour that ‘ere the end you forgive it all.

I very much enjoyed the production of the record, which had that big empty sound similar to a Laura Marling record, and gives “High as Hope” a similar folksy undercurrent. Pitchfork gave the album a 5.7/10 mostly complaining about the production, but they’re wrong; the production is part of the reason the album works. The lyrical poetry of “Sky Full of Song” just wouldn’t work with a bunch of bother gussying it up. I’m glad that Welch (and producer Emily Haynie) opt instead to just let the song stand strong on its own, making it feel like Welch is singing un-mic’d in front of some 18th century Scottish fireplace.

It would be easy to dismiss “High as Hope” claiming that Welch’s stories aren’t worth your time. But any tale is worth the telling, if told well. I didn’t gain any deep insights into the human condition writ large, but what is there is evocative and sung with honesty and talent. “High as Hope” is a good record and a worthy entry in Welch’s strong and well-deserved career.

Best tracks: Hunger, South London Forever, Sky Full of Song, Grace, the End of Love

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