Album review: Florence + The Machine: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Florence Welch doesn’t do things by halves, whether that is bellowing her guts up in the studio or losing herself so utterly in a performance that she falls off stage and breaks her foot, as happened recently at the Coachella Festival.

Florence - How Big How Blue How Beautiful
Florence - How Big How Blue How Beautiful

Rather than nurture the beast with more of that elemental escapism she does rather well, her musical response has been to allow a touch of vulnerability to breach her defences. She claims her third album is her most personal yet. In place of the highly stylised images of its predecessors, the sleeve is a fairly stark portrait shot and, at points, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful sounds like Florence + the Machine on bed rest. But only at points.

Despite a ban, imposed by her producer Markus Dravs, on writing about water yet again, the opening track is called Ship to Wreck. Laced with marine imagery, it’s a blithe, fluent number about peaking and crashing, and the brimming confidence that comes with a few libations, followed by the claustrophobic paranoia of the morning after. Welch throws back her head and wails the chorus, as is her way.

When she gives a marginally more reserved performance on What Kind of Man, the results feel hollow even after the crunchy guitar chords and brass fanfare has kicked in. It’s a double-edged gambit. Welch’s booming voice is her USP so, while reining in her foghorn tendencies might make her sound more palatable to those who would previously have run for cover, it curbs her natural ebullience.

The burnished mellow blues of Long & Lost and middle of the road country-flavoured ballad Caught are certainly softer but, in practise, there is not a great deal of restraint being exercised across the album. The song arrangements are still all guns blazing – witness the galloping rock rhythm, brass blast and melodramatic strings of the title track or the Stevie Nicks-style careering swirl of Queen of Peace.

As are her themes. Welch celebrates the free-spirited frenzy of dance on new single Delilah – though surely she should be referencing Salomé? Or Kevin Bacon? Various Storms and Saints sounds more like a summary of her lyrical preoccupations; indeed, she obliges with St Jude, a hymn-like meditation on the patron saint of lost causes which is pretty thin musically, but more open lyrically.

Welch then goes out with a would-be flourish on epic psychedelic fuzz rocker Mother where, ironically, she plays it relatively safe and slick, like she’s just pretending to take the tablets.