For Florence Welch, dancing has long held the power to heal, provide salvation and tell stories of hope and transformation. The lead vocalist of Florence + The Machine took technical dance lessons as she began her sobriety in 2014, which disciplined and refreshed her outlook as a performer. It’s hard to understate, too, the rejuvenating effect its had on their live shows; in recent years, her intricately choreographed theatrics have elevated the band’s compellingly restless indie to the level of performance art.
So when Welch came across the historical concept of choreomania, a group ritual of dancing to exhaustion – in one extreme case, 400 women danced themselves to death in the Middle Ages – while reading in lockdown, she became instantly enthralled by the concept. At a time when dancing was practically non-existent – besides the quarantine kitchen disco – the south London songwriter and musician, like so many of us, craved the physical release of movement.
The fifth album from Welch and her band, ‘Dance Fever’, expands the emotional weight of that once-universal desire into gorgeously expressive songs. This 14-track collection reflects a new sense of resolve, packing an invigorated spirit into powerful, sneakily thrilling pop. Welch directly addresses the pent-up rage that so many felt throughout quarantine on ‘Girls Against God’, a restless tumble of shaggy, ‘70s-style folk stylings: “And if they ever let me out / I’m going to really let it out”. Listening to her sing with real verve, it’s impossible not to feel the same exaggerated sense of determination.
‘Dance Fever’ is largely obsessed with reclamation, not just of the dancefloor, but of love and selfhood. Where 2018’s pleasant but sometimes forgettable ‘High As Hope’ saw Welch powerfully sing about her past – the gut-punch lyrics of lead single ‘Hunger’ outlined her recovery from an eating disorder – this album looks towards Welch’s future and who she wants to become. Produced by NME’s Songwriter Award winner Jack Antonoff, lead single ‘King’, with its gale-force chorus and surging hooks, excavates an inner conflict of balancing a career as demanding as Welch’s with a desire to have children. “But a woman is a changeling / Always shifting shape,” she sings. “Just when you think you have it figured out / Something new begins to take.”
The quietly vast ‘Heaven Is Here’ similarly traces the blurred lines between Welch’s personal and artistic life. Over a bed of choral group harmonies and swelling instrumentation, the track laces its gentle psychedelia with a dash of foreboding, as it acknowledges how a life lived through music can transcend reality, yet also feel claustrophobic (“Every song I wrote became an escape rope / Tied around my neck”).
For Welch, the reality of being a pop star is still evidently surreal, and the songs of ‘Dance Fever’ are full of admissions, plainly sung, with very little left between the lines. Where her music has long been full of near-mythological imagery – 2015’s ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ started life as a concept record about a witch coven – the reality presented on this album is profoundly more haunting.
If the lyrics share a tight thematic focus, the music is where Welch stretches out into intriguing new shapes. On ‘Restraint’, a minute-long interlude that packs a small but mighty punch, she turns a filtered vocal line into a deliberately uncomfortable cavalcade of gasping noises. ‘Daffodil’ is punctuated with sharp intakes of breath and the frequent blitz of industrial-sounding drum machines, while the spiralling ‘Cassandra’’s messages of urgency are heightened by a flitting violin. On the former, Welch’s breathy whisper is often unfortunately overshadowed by low-end distortion, but the track’s sonic experimentation certainly leaves an impression.
The tear-stained disco throb of ‘My Love’, with its bright and lean blasts of synth, sounds like being engaged in a cathartic therapy session under the swirling lights of an indie club night. Produced by Glass Animals frontman Dave Bayley, the song is presented as an optimistic perspective shift; thick beats emphasise Welch’s portrayal of romance as a rich kaleidoscope of feeling – from the lust to the pain, but ultimately finding joy within it all.
Another resilience anthem arrives in the form of ‘Free’, which channels the intensity of Welch’s previous work, but in a more euphoric direction. Its twitchy percussion arrangements heighten one of the most ecstatic choruses of the band’s career, and Welch approaches the subject of overcoming anxiety with sustained wonder that such happiness is even possible.
“And for a moment / When I’m dancing / I feel free”, she sings, over a whirl of buzz and shimmer. By repeating that mantra throughout the track’s sumptuous choruses, Welch sounds energised from the thrill of this feeling – and the possibilities afforded by it. Much like the majority of ‘Dance Fever’, it feels like a joyous, slowly unfurling epiphany. It’s a gift to be able to listen in.