I have loved Florence Welch since I stumbled upon her music on YouTube more than two years ago. It was one of those recommended if you like videos. I clicked on the song – I think it was “Dog Days Are Over” — and was mesmerized. Within minutes, I had clicked on three or four of her songs, discovering a fantastic new talent in the process.
I ranked her debut, Lungs, among my favorite albums of 2009. Since then, the album has been one I have returned to dozens of times. Its replay value is first class.
Florence+The Machine’s sophomore album, Ceremonials, has many of the same trademarks as Lungs, starting with Florence’s massive, haunting voice and her fascination with the occult and other dark themes. Tribal drums and strings also appear on many of the tracks, as they did on Lungs.
Whereas I enjoyed Lungs end-to-end, I can’t say the same thing about Ceremonials. The second half of Ceremonials is hard to listen to for two reasons: A) The songs just aren’t as invigorating — musically and lyrically — as their first half counterparts and B) Florence’s bleak lyrics become too great a mountain to climb when the music weakens.
This is by no means a great album. There are great, GREAT songs here — some of my favorites of 2011. But this 15-song album should have been edited more thoroughly.
Ceremonials bolts out the starting blocks with three fantastic, bombastic, giant tracks that will sound mesmerizing on the 2012 festival circuit, I’m sure.
The opening trio — “Only If For A Night,” “Shake It Out,” “What The Water Gave Me” — introduce reoccuring themes such as ghosts and demons, water pulling Welch under and her myriad insecurities. It also introduces listeners to the largesse of Welch’s voice — which devours planets when multi-tracked – and the resplendent choir behind her.
“Looking for Heaven, found a devil in me,” Welch reflects on “Shake It Out.” This could be a problem; only Welch has the solution. “It’s hard to dance with a devil on your back so shake him off,” she belts on the chorus.
Whereas “Shake It Out” succeeds on pure volume, “What The Water Gave Me” excels in withholding its climactic release, that overflowing water sensation, until later in the song. The ensuing journey features a haunting breakdown and magnificent choir additions, until Welch rides the beat to a glorious place around the 3:30 mark.
“Breaking Down” offers a nice refrain from all the vocal decibels. Its jaunty piano and purposeful strings also seem a little more relaxed. But Welch’s mental state is nowhere near (“I think I’m breaking down again.”).
Welch is sultry on “Lover To Lover,” in which she declares there is “no salvation for me now, no space for me between the clouds.” The organ, piano and handclaps that take turns accompanying Welch are a nice touch.
Perhaps this album’s best non-single, and best track period, is “No Light, No Light.” It is Welch’s most personal lyrical performance so far. The song’s sped-up drums and Welch’s subsequent sped-up vocals recall Welch racing through town in a hurried attempt to win back her lover. Desperation drips from this track. It is glorious. When the pace slows, Welch offers a direct window into her world.
“It’s so easy to say it to a crowd, but it’s so hard, my love, to say it to you out loud,” she confesses, drawing out the final note as if to punctuate her sentiment.
The murky, slow-moving “Seven Devils” and the upbeat, inspirational “Heartlines” fail to make much of a mark. They’re better than dance number “Spectrum,” perhaps the album’s least focused track. It’s hard to figure what producer Paul Epworth was going for on this one. It’s painful to hear Welch sing “say my name.” That’s not your look, lady.
At this point, the album was threatening to spiral out of control for me, I’m sorry to say.
“Leave My Body” is just too bleak to enjoy. I’m not expecting sunshine from Welch, but her predilection with death and nothingness just grows old. It’s like she channeled fellow Brit singer Laura Marling, except went for a darker and more glum aesthetic.
The second half is not a total wash thanks to “Strangeness and Charm,” a track that, like “No Light, No Light,” invokes Welch racing around desperately. I have no idea what Welch is really going for when she repeats “feel it on me love” but it’s engrossing.
It’s yet another track that will sound great during the 2012 festival season. When you combine the best eight or so tracks from Ceremonials with the best of Lungs, Welch now has a formidable rotation of songs for her live set. Unfortunately, she only has a mediocre sophomore album for all her struggles with ghosts, relationships and fame.