Release Date: Nov 1, 2011
Record label: Island
Florence is a machine. When Florence Welch burst to prominence two years ago, fronting a five-piece rock band as vigorous as any that's emerged from the U.K. in recent memory, it was clear that she was something special: a vocalist with extra horsepower who hurtled through love songs like a truck tearing down an empty highway on a moonless night. Florence and the Machine's second album is as dark, robust and romantic as ever, but a revving 18-wheeler is no longer the apt metaphor for Welch's voice.
She’s already sung Aretha Franklin at the Grammys and provided the luscious soundtrack to Julia Roberts’ onscreen gelato binges in Eat Pray Love, so what does Florence Welch do next? She crafts Ceremonials, a confident, unflinching tour de force. If her acclaimed 2009 debut, Lungs, was a scrappy shrine to survival and empowerment, its follow-up is a baroque cathedral, bedecked with ornate tapestries made of ghostly choirs, pagan-rhythmic splendor, and a whole lot of harp. And though that sounds like a mess of New Age goop, Ceremonials genuinely rocks: Jagged violins erupt into a chugging prog shuffle on ”Breaking Down,” while ”Lover to Lover” makes funky use of a Springsteen-size arena-gospel backbeat.
Well now, if Lungs isn’t the perfect debut for Florence Welch and her machines, then I don’t know what is. Perfect, that is, because of its imperfections. To explain my seemingly circular argument, I would like to invoke the “Funeral Rule”: Arcade Fire’s debut was too good. The Fire’s subsequent releases, despite being excellent, have all fallen victim to Funeral’s legacy.
There’s a point just past the halfway mark on “Shake It Out,” the rousing first single from Florence + the Machine's second studio release, when the swelling guitars, organs, and strings, staccato percussion, and Florence Welch's air-raid siren of a voice lock up in a herculean battle over which one is going to launch itself into the stratosphere first. It’s a contest that plays out at least once on each of Ceremonials' immaculately produced 12 tracks. Such carefully calculated moments of rhapsody would dissolve into redundant treacle in less capable hands, but Welch does emotional bombast better than any of her contemporaries, and when she wails into the black abyss above, the listener can’t help but return the call.
Florence Welch and her machine are here to take you to church with Ceremonials, the bombastic and bruising second album from the flame-haired British singer and her band. And you should get in the car, because with a record this epic, it's not like you have a choice: Ceremonials is like a musical Category 5 hurricane tearing through a bat mitzvah. .
If there’s a blueprint for art-scarred eccentrics to follow that outlines how they can aspire to become top-of-the-charts divas who still maintain the quirks that made them distinctive, you could do worse than the one Florence Welch has drawn up. There’s a reason why Florence and the Machine can seem as at ease rubbing shoulders with the haute couture jet set as the band is getting remixed by au courant underground acts like the Weeknd and the xx, and that’s simply because Welch exudes such confidence in her singular aesthetic vision that she can be herself: Following the same muse on her sophomore effort Ceremonials that helped her hit the big time to begin with, Welch is the kind of artist who takes the lead and lets others come along for the ride, rather than simply playing to the whims and trends of the marketplace or banking on gimmickry. As she puts it on “No Light, No Light”, “You can’t choose what stays and what fades away”—a sentiment that actually applies better to the music biz than to romance—so why not stick to your guns and do things on your own terms, especially when you’ve got a track record of making it work? Elevating their idiosyncratic style to an even grander scale, Ceremonials makes Florence and the Machine’s captivating debut Lungs seem quaint and charming in comparison.
In the 19th century, society had a method for sweeping women whose behaviour was deemed strange and unusual under the carpet: they’d be spirited away to places with large lawns and high walls, and left to keep counsel with sprites and faeries on a brainful of laudanum. Thankfully, in the liberal and enlightened 21st century, we now recognise that they’re actually far better suited to being pop stars, an arrangement that’s worked out happily for everyone. In fact, now that their male counterparts have retreated onto the endangered species list, the onus of providing pop music with the “strange fascination” that Bowie once sang about has fallen more or less squarely on the padded shoulders of the [a]Lady Gaga[/a]s, [b]Janelle Monáe[/b]s and Florence Welchs of this world.
Saying Florence Welch has a big voice is like saying Prince is interested in sex: Her pipes, like his libido, function as both source and channel, inspiration and means of expression, for music that serves it. The standout from Welch’s debut—whose name paid tribute to her respiratory system, as though acknowledging that her lungs deserved equal billing with the statuesque hippie chick tasked with lugging them around—was called “Cosmic Love,” and one gets the sense that it didn’t invoke “the stars, the moon” as a grandiose metaphor for heartbreak so much as to give Welch’s whooping, plummeting voice subject matter appropriate to its own massive dimensions. Elsewhere, Lungs‘s ungainly amalgam of Brit-rock, soul, and theatrical, vaguely mystical pop revealed a talented group of industry producers shuffling haphazardly through the ideas they’d thought too weird to sell, grasping for arrangements that could withstand the levels of drama that Welch’s voice simply demands.
Florence + the Machine’s 2009 debut, Lungs, was every bit as visceral as its title suggested, exploring the extremes of startling emotional violence and stark spiritual catharsis. With her red hair and pagan-glamour fashion sense, frontwoman Florence Welch came across like an artist still discovering what all she could get away with, and it proved surprisingly varied, with the tremendous “Dog Days” jostling against the straightforward “Kiss with a Fist. ” She rode that slow burner of an album all the way to the Grammys, where she outsung Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Hudson and proved she didn’t need to resort to ostentation to convey soul and conviction.
Ceremonials is the musically cohesive follow-up to Florence and the Machine's breakout but uneven 2009 debut, Lungs, which established Florence Welch as a stylish, ambitious songwriter with a powerhouse voice and a penchant for visceral metaphors. Working solely with A-list producer Paul Epworth, Welch expands on the debut's blustery moments with unapologetically huge-sounding production that channels the wild, communal energy of her go-for-broke live shows. Church bells, triumphant piano chords, epic builds and multi-track harmonies on opener Only If For A Night establish her reverent formula, while intoxicating single Shake It Out kicks the gospel rave into overdrive - Welch's voice swells, swoops and crashes with graceful violence.
When I first saw Florence and the Machine two years ago at New York's cozy and beloved Bowery Ballroom, leader Florence Welch's voice was simply too loud for the room. She sounded massive, but shrill. Overpowering. If the show took place in an X-Men movie, the wind gushing from Welch's lungs would have propelled several patrons smashing through the Bowery's back window onto Delancey Street.
Florence + The Machine appear to have evolved into one of those bands that it is considered de rigueur for people who deem themselves musically leftfield and papercut cool to despise. This troubles me. Granted, Miss Welch’s live performances veer dangerously close to ear surgery at times and frankly, that cover of ‘You’ve Got The Love’ should have been drowned, disembowelled and fed piecemeal to small rodents at birth.
Honestly, if asked to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with Florence + the Machine it would be difficult to know where to start. Is the most irritating thing about them (or rather her) the half-baked mysticism that aims for profundity but comes across more teenager on a first trip to Glastonbury? Or is it her voice, straining so hard for the operatic but more often ending up in the vicinity of foghorn? Perhaps the most damaging flaw is the extremely formulaic nature of her material; it always aims to be big, raucous and uplifting and yet somehow tasteful, and always ends up getting rather exhausting. Despite all this, there's still something about her that makes it all work.
The mood of Florence Welch's second album is set by the cover, on which Welch appears to be posing for Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The mood of the disc inside, too, is decidedly pre-Raphaelite: a gothic fever dream of romance, striving for intensity without quite capturing it. "All of the ghouls come out to play," she sings in Shake It Out, which just about nails it: the ghouls are only ever playing, never actually threatening.
One day a critically acclaimed, commercially successful pop artist will aspire to make a record that sounds small. In a room with perfect acoustics a minimal cohort of musicians will lay down a set of barely-there tracks, vibrant with feeling and pristine instrumentation. They will only break from their masterpiece to watch some pigs fly past the window.
Although ceremonies differ around the world, there are a few constants. The event is usually personally and culturally significant, a performance of some sort occurs, and there’s a direct tie to love, whether it be for another person, country, etc. Florence and the Machine’s second album fits all those criteria. Ceremonials is a focused, spiritual effort that will please fans of Lungs without being a retread.
Took longer than she would've liked, but Florence Welch entered 2012 as an important pop star. Her misty, powerful voice has its tendrils wrapped around both modern rock and NPR frequencies even though sophomore disc Ceremonials throws off any prayers of discreet songwriting. Her Machine thrives on omnipotence, swift to soften hardened hearts, sway doubters, topple charts.
The always stirring Florence Welch is at it again on Ceremonials, blurring the line between the earthly and the spiritual with her restless rave-ups and pained, emotive vocals that seek release in song. What was fresh on her debut Lungs becomes formula (but the very best kind…) here as Florence cements her status as a tortured, but (over)zealous soul who tries to find joyous redemption and renewal in communal and personal catharsis. Florence has found her calling on Lungs, and now she’s administering to her devotees.
Like a banshee, the sinewy chanteuse Florence Welch wails on just about every track on the new album, Ceremonials. As in the past, Welch’s inspired singing is a rallying cry of rebirth creating her own brand of mystical poetry filled with devils and ghosts. Florence + The Machine catapulted to worldwide fame in 2009 with the release of their debut album Lungs.
All grandeur but little grace, Ceremonials lacks the heart of Florence’s debut LP. Alix Buscovic 2011 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.
FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE “Ceremonials” (Universal Republic) It’s no accident that “Ceremonials,” Florence Welch’s second album leading Florence and the Machine, starts with keyboards mimicking the peal of cathedral bells. “Ceremonials” is pitched as nothing less than an earthshaking battle for the singer’s soul: a matter of life and death, heaven and hell, immolation and transcendence. After selling more than three million copies worldwide of their 2009 debut album, “Lungs,” Florence and the Machine have decided that bigger is better.