It’s fair to say the run-up to the release of Florence + The Machine’s third album hasn’t gone to plan. After three low-key dates in London and San Francisco during March and April, Florence Welch’s first big gig back was at the daddy of high-profile festivals, California’s Coachella. During the performance – which included three tracks from ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ – Florence leapt like a flame-haired dervish from the stage to dash towards her adoring crowd, breaking her foot in the process. Subsequent shows at Los Angeles’ Ace Hotel, at the second weekend of Coachella and on Later with… Jools Holland saw the 28-year-old perched on a stool, her injured foot dangling limply. For someone about to embark on a massive global tour, it was far from ideal.
But, as annoying – and downright painful – as the injury was, it might actually have been a backhanded stroke of luck. The follow-up to 2011’s lavish ‘Ceremonials’ shows a more introspective side to the singer than we’ve heard before, and Florence’s new songs fit perfectly with the kind of intimate, subdued performance that can only be offered up after mangling your metatarsal.
With Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire producer Markus Dravs picking up the production reins from Paul Epworth (Adele, Coldplay) and James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Haim), who both worked on Flo’s 2009 debut ‘Lungs’ and its follow-up, you’d expect his trademark brassy bombast to be in full effect. Yet the three-time Grammy winner has succeeded in doing something many imagined impossible – reeling in those belting vocals. The tranquil ‘Long & Lost’ represents Florence’s most delicate delivery to date. Sounding as floaty as one of her voluminous stage gowns, she weaves a jazzy but minimal melody around hushed chants from her back-up singers. If John Milton had written a wine bar into Paradise Lost, this would be humming out of its soundsystem. Similarly serene is ‘St Jude’. Against a gentle keyboard drone, she sings a mellow ode to “the patron saint of the lost causes”. It’s as pleasingly underplayed as ‘Caught’, where she somewhat disingenuously sings “I can’t keep calm/ I can’t keep still/ Pulled apart against my will” while sounding more settled than ever before.
That’s not to say the record doesn’t offer up some super-sized bangers. ‘Third Eye’ is every bit as beefy as 2009’s ‘Dog Days Are Over’, with Florence going into full-on preacherwoman mode, calling out “you deserve to be loved” like a self-help guru. Florence confessed that Dravs tried to ban her from writing any more songs about water, but her disobedience is pop’s gain. ‘Ship To Wreck’ sees a drunken evening spiraling out of control and ending up in a disaster of Titanic proportions. Its lusty life force is offset by the weighty ‘What Kind Of Man’. The album’s ominous first single utilises a moody guitar riff nabbed straight from the Interpol vaults to add oomph to a bitter tribute to a lover so indelible they “inspired a fire of devotion that lasted 20 years”.
Happily, moments of light far outweigh those of darkness. Closer ‘Mother’ tempts Epworth back for one last job – a glossy Jefferson Airplane-style slice of blues with an unmistakable debt to ‘Screamadelica’-era Primal Scream’s gospel psych. Overflowing with stately songwriting and lyrical craftsmanship, ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ makes for a restrained but joyful return, and a collection that will last long after Welch’s broken bones are mended.