At some point in the past year Florence + the Machine transitioned from its status as a hype-heavy act of questionable talent to that of a deeply affecting musical powerhouse. Florence + the Machine—which really is just a stage name for lead vocalist and songwriter Florence Welch—impressed the public with her first album, “Lungs,” which featured cute punk hits like “Kiss with a Fist” reminiscent of Avril Lavigne’s similar girly-punk phase. With “Ceremonials,” Welch has left behind that almost juvenile demeanor and come into her own unique style that showcases both her fabulous voice and the lyrically ingenious, beat-heavy music that backs her vocals. “Ceremonials” is a deeply compelling album, a synthesis of extremely enjoyable pop forms and profound poetic meaning.
Even without the music, the lyrics of “Ceremonials” would retain their power. “Shake It Out,” for instance, relates the dark story of a Welch who is plagued by metaphorical demons. At the bridge of the song, she sings: “I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t / So here’s to drinks in the dark at the end of my road,” and she evokes a strangely alluring image of drinking to her own demise. To emphasize the ideal of living without regret even further, she belts in the chorus, “And it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back / So shake him off” Even in ecstatic pop choruses, she maintains her dour lyrical themes.
The equivalent musical pinnacle is found on “Lover to Lover,” which starts with a peppy piano progression that recasts Welch’s tremulous vocals as those of a 1960s Motown diva. For a singer with such a distinct voice, Welch is surprisingly versatile, as demonstrated by her bold channeling of old soul singers. Somehow, it all works, even despite Florence + the Machine’s indie categorization. The group defies genre expectations to stunning effect as they delve into the depths of musical history and pull off danceable Motown hits as well as pensive, swelling, and unhinged indie rock.
Though a Motown throwback was unexpected, perhaps the most surprising song on the album is “Breaking Down.” Where the album deals in large themes and larger sounds, “Breaking Down” is shockingly intimate. Welch’s vocals make their first appearance after an orchestral introduction reminiscent of Arcade Fire. She uses a tape slap reverb effect that echoes intimately over the sound of violins. Thanks in part to the reverb effect, the slow strings, and her ominously hushed vocals, she sounds like a female Wyn Butler. Every twist and turn her voice makes is amplified, and her exaggerated imperfections lend her the vulnerability suggested by the song’s title. As the track progresses, Welch is backed by a choir that serves as a perfect metaphor for support—the other voices back her own quavering voice as she slowly “breaks down.”
If there are any disappointing moments to this album, they appear in Welch’s final track, “Leave My Body.” The track opens with ghostly atmospherics and a off-pitch, breathy synthesizer that unfortunately sounds like a mediocre performance at a fifth-grade flute recital. Perhaps the disjointed sound of the mystery instrument is supposed to remind us of a disjointed body and soul, as suggested by the title of “Leave My Body.” However, such symbolism fails, as the flute is too distracting to allow for any deep thought. While she displays admirable constraint throughout the record, it’s clear that her cosmic musical ambitions tend towards indulgence if left unchecked.
Overall, the album is true to the promise in “Shake it Out” of freeing listeners of regret and allowing for metaphorical demons to be cleansed through dance. Welch is an incredibly gifted and versatile songwriter, and she has created an album both lyrically pleasing, and wildly fun to listen to. Her knack for combining genres of music without losing her unique touch allows her to appeal to a broader base, and to transcend limitations typically associated with indie music.