Much of the lead-up to How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, the highly anticipated studio album from British indie-rock band Florence + the Machine, has included an overemphasis of the album’s stripped-back sound. No stranger to bombast, the band’s previous two albums were high on drama, jam-packed with existential lyricism, and filled to the brim with grandiose instrumentals.
In a recent press release, frontwoman Florence Welch stated that “the new album became about trying to learn how to live [in reality] rather than trying to escape it.” She seemingly follows up that statement during “Caught,” in which she states, “it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.” Unfortunately, this conflict in the album’s creation is painfully present throughout the entire album as the songs tread a treacherous line between underwhelming and overwrought.
That the record has taken on a much more self-aware and introspective approach in the thematic and musical arrangements is momentarily clear within the opening song, “Ship To Wreck” in which Welch asks, “Oh my love remind me, what was it that I said?” over a much more soft-rock oriented sound in comparison to the band’s orchestral past efforts. However, the subsequent track, “What Kind Of Man,” begins with breathy vocals before awkwardly switching to an aggressive section that leans heavily on guitar and drums. The track continues on into an overwrought and grandiose climax—something the band claimed to have left behind—with Welch howling over seemingly dozens of brass instruments.
What follows is nine underwhelming songs that blend into a rather melancholy but musically chaotic whirlwind of vague ballads, disinteresting 70s drivetime rock, and undercooked production. Even Welch’s vocals, which are noticeably restrained, are still too much when set against the subdued and dreary backdrop of the songs in this collection. Additionally, many of the ‘new’ themes of water, religion, and self-worth were all explored in the band’s 2011 record, Ceremonials, where the over-the-top production was much more fitting with the explosion of emotion conveyed. On How Big…, the same answer-seeking lyrics and soaring vocals aren’t supported: instead, Welch is left searching, high above the reality that she tried to encapsulate and ground herself in with this record.
In leaving behind the overly dramatic arrangements that once made the band so notable, Florence and the Machine have left themselves with a pastiche sound that makes even the aforementioned track, “What Kind Of Man,” a breath of fresh and drama-filled air. One song, “Third Eye,” does break from the melancholy formula. The result is that Welch lets go completely and accepts that she’s at her best when going full-scale with her music. Her dramatic layered vocals are supported by galloping drums and a fantastic combination of claps, guitars, and piano riffs. But even this song sums up the album’s confused existence perfectly: “I am the same / I am the same / but I’m trying to change,” she shrieks. This juxtaposing agenda is as long-winded and vague as the album’s title: It’s very big, very blue, but not very beautiful or cohesive.