Florence and the Machine, Ceremonials
By Heather Wible
November 1, 2011
There’s a certain truth to the thought that every piece of art is a piece of the artist; the things we create inevitably reflect some part of ourselves. Florence Welch, the former art student and namesake behind Florence and the Machine, is declared “a mass of contradictions” on her website. And on the British electro-pop powerhouse’s sophomore album, Ceremonials, this contradictory nature comes out strongly.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The album is almost manic in its life. The highs are really high—full of pulse, life, beat, passion—everything that drew us all to Welch and her ever-changing group of collaborators (“the Machine”) in the first place. But the lows aren’t even lows so much as flats. Although released two years, three months and 25 days after her wildly popular debut Lungs, much of the album feels rushed in its development—like if there had been more time, this track wouldn’t have been on the album, or that track would have grown more and realized its potential.
Two singles from the album have already received radio airplay: “Shake It Out” and “What the Water Gave Me.” The two would be hard-pressed to be more different. “Shake It Out” is a victorious anthem of hope, future and optimism, touting lyrics like, It’s always darkest before the dawn and, It’s hard to dance with a devil on your back / so shake him out. It’s a brilliant follow-up to her biggest hit from Lungs, “Dog Days Are Over.” But “What the Water Gave Me,” although it has an unrelenting beat during the verses, lacks drive and depth. The floating chorus is lovely and contrasting, but it fails to pull the listener in. One is able to maintain a safe distance, observing, but not participating in the music. Part of this may be the balance of the track; a little less cymbals and lower vocals might be all it takes to dive head first into the potential well of sound. This is one of the tracks that suffers either from too little time in development, or too much time away from the other tracks. (But don’t misunderstand me, that chorus will still get stuck in your head.)
The rest of the album bears this same dichotomy. So much of it is worthy of late-spring, windows-down, volume-up drives. Unfortunately those heralding anthems of life are sandwiched between lackluster minutes of sound and noise with no direction or pull.
“No Light, No Light” is much more in line with the Florence we’ve met in Lungs, and a progressive step. It moves forward, noisy, drums heavy and in your face. However, the previous track, “Lover to Lover,” barely merits so much as a passing glance or second listen.
“All This and Heaven Too” is another stand-out track on the album. It is by far the poppiest and bubblegummiest of the band's catalog. The voice is Florence. The noise is Florence. The structure is Florence. All of the sound is Florence ... but the feel of the song is someone else. It is evidence of another strange characteristic of the album: a bizarre 1980-meets-2010 vibe that keeps cropping up. There are indistinct but undeniable strains of Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper and the like mixed with Bjork.
The album ends with what might be the most characteristic track, “Leave My Body.” It is exactly what you’d expect from Florence and the Machine: haunting, twisted, but irresistible. Even hints at openness in chords and background choruses are disrupted by jagged beats or harmonies that are just tight enough to make you uncomfortable.
As for the standard vs. deluxe debate: Spend the money, get the deluxe. “Strangeness and Charm” would be worth the monetary difference alone. But the demos of “What the Water Gave Me” and “Landscape” are great, too—the former because it lends more depth to the song than the released version has, and the latter because it has some great lyrics. The real clincher is in the acoustic version of “Shake It Out.”. I do miss having the Machine’s noise on this one, but it’s vulnerable and endearing. If it finds its way to a charity commercial, I will neither be surprised nor unmoved (read: I will weep like a child).
It’s hard to say that Ceremonials isn’t fireworks all the way through, but it’s not a bad album. If you’re thinking about starting your relationship with Florence and the Machine with this release, think again and start with Lungs. But follow-up albums and sequels are always difficult, and while Ceremonials is inconsistent, it is solid in its self-contradictions.