Pop at its most grandiose
Returning for their fourth studio LP, High as Hope, modern English rockers Florence + The Machine don’t waste a single breath, in Florence’s case literally, crafting another ten tracks of their distinct neo-soul sound. Three years after their previous studio effort, the group finds themselves dropping powerful pop anthems, as most of the tracks include a rousing explosion of sound, mixed with front-woman Florence Welch’s quieter yet more sensual musings. High as Hope finds Welch in a time of reflection, many of the songs wistfully recollecting younger, more debauched days, and how this has impacted her relationships from then to now. Substance abuse is a common thematic thread between several of the tracks, as Welch often delves into the personal and dark without fear.
Musically, High as Hope finds Florence and her Machine’s sound more stripped down, yet never lacking in its distinctive energy and pulsating builds. While High as Hope has its flaws, there isn’t a bad track on the record. Welch has turned out ten ultimately hopeful, uplifting pop tracks that showcase a more poetic songwriting ability while maintaining Florence + The Machine’s brand of impeccable production. And above it all, Welch’s voice is still the most powerful thing about the entire project, while there isn’t too much variety in the singing style across these ten tracks, owed largely to Welch’s narrative songwriting, her voice is always being utilized to its fullest extent, in the main singing, the hooks, the backup vocals and some pleasant “oohs” and “aahs” in just the right places.
There is nary a song on this whole album that does not find The Machine at their most grandiose, which overall works and makes for some fantastic explosions of sound. Stand-out tracks include “Hunger,” a triumphant single inspired by Welch’s own struggle with an eating disorder, “Sky Full of Song,” which while not explosive is sweeping and wistful, and “Patricia,” which contains a fantastic back-beat and Welch using her vocals like a whiplash.
The only track where these familiar elements of build-up into musical release is “100 Years,” which finds the least interesting build that ends on essentially a weak closing jam. It’s disappointing considering the additional presence on this track of artists like saxophonist Kamasi Washington and — [lifts glasses] — Father John Misty? Apparently, somewhere on “100 Years” Josh Tillman is playing “additional guitar.” Good luck hearing it, which just goes to show this particular track’s excess in comparison to the rest of the album. That is simply the weak link in a series of otherwise well-constructed songs, some of Welch’s most personal and interesting lyrics over some The Machine’s grand sound.
If there is one major issue with High as Hope, it is actually in its consistency. Consistency of production standards, consistency of The Machine’s chamber pop sound, consistency of builds, consistency of Welch’s diary-esque confessionals, consistency of depressing into uplifting, of soft into loud. By no means are these ten tracks indistinguishable, but it’s clear on a full listen through that Welch and co. found a sound that worked and decided to play it safe. “Play it safe” technically means turning out a fully complete record with ten solid tracks, but on an album that inspires perseverance and fearlessness, one wishes The Machine was willing to take a few more risks.