Album review: Florence + The Machine, Ceremonials

It is hard not to make comparisons with the John Everett Millais depiction of Ophelia's death when Florence Welch embraces the Pre-Raphaelite look so closely
It is hard not to make comparisons with the John Everett Millais depiction of Ophelia's death when Florence Welch embraces the Pre-Raphaelite look so closely
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Try not to think too hard about this second album from Florence Welch. Just dive right in and let the overwrought, multilayered vocals wash over you

Does this gleeful thievery even enter her head when she’s in full flow with her wind machine rippling those floaty sleeves as petals cascade around her harp? Probably not. Welch is a creature of sensibility not sense. She may yet prove to be a portal to her higher influences but for the moment she’s having too much fun indulging her fantasies. “Everything sounds so good” she gushed to The Scotsman as justification for her maximalist approach on debut album Lungs. The subtle approach could wait for her second album.

So has she learned to apply restraint? Has she heck. If anything, the success of Lungs – three million sales worldwide and counting – only justifies greater excess. Her comment on the release of Lungs that “I want my music to sound like throwing yourself out of a tree, or off a tall building, or as if you’re being sucked down into the ocean and you can’t breathe” holds water on this follow-up, most overtly on a couple of songs where she feeds her Ophelia complex. What The Water Gave Me also chucks in the title of a Frida Kahlo painting and a reference to Virginia Woolf’s suicide by drowning for good measure. The Alice in Wonderland concept album must only be a budget meeting away.

Soundwise, this is a huge, merciless production. Again, Welch doesn’t hold back on the multitracked vocals; it’s like being charged by a veritable Amazonian tribe of Florences. But while the stagey vocal exorcisms remain, the musical edges have been sanded off. With all its tribal whoops and thundering percussion, the album treads a fine line between Peter Gabriel and The Lion King.

Welch used to write songs when half-drunk, revelling in the surreality of that state. Now there are artistic and commercial expectations, it would be too risky to reprise that approach, so she has become more streamlined and less feral in her compositions.

The punk Florence of the early gigs has been subsumed by her inner pagan priestess, and there is no place for a song like Kiss with a Fist here. Far from the primal intensity she claims for her music, there are times on Ceremonials where it all goes a bit Enya.

The album release has been brought forward a week to land on Hallowe’en, Coincidence? I hope not. Ceremonials is riddled with ghosts and demons. “All the ghouls come out to play” on recent single Shake It Out where, borrowing a line from the hymn Lord of the Dance, “it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back”. Meanwhile, over a relatively lean, muscular and purposeful backing, the superior Only if for a Night recounts a dream in which Welch was visited by her late grandmother: “it was so surreal that a ghost should be so practical” she notes in her lyrical diary beside the girlish observation that “I did cartwheels in your honour”.

Elsewhere, there is a certain witchery to Seven Devils and Spectrum’s “say my name” hookline packs an elemental power but otherwise Ceremonials becomes repetitive and a mite tedious, revisiting the same imagery and sonic pomp. No Light, No Light – slated as the next single – and Heartlines bring nothing new to the party, only a dilution of what has gone before and surely no- one would miss bland filler fare Breaking Down and All This and Heaven Too. The over-the-top booming soul pop of Lover to Lover is a slight deviation but degenerates into histrionics for the sake of it.

At least the album comes to a soaring climax with the pagan choral impact of Leave My Body followed by a trail of mist/dry ice in its wake.

So just remember: don’t think too much. Ceremonials is best appreciated by adopting the same approach as Florence: dive straight in, submit unquestioningly and let it pull you along in its surge.