Album of the Month: Florence and the Machine with “Ceremonials”

We went to see MGMT at the Astoria, May 2008. The first of two support acts was an unknown, young, charismatic, striking redheaded girl, with a guitar, a couple of other pretty anonymous musicians, and an amazing quasi-operatic voice. She sang strange songs about abusive relationships and mythical creatures. Mad as a bucket of frogs, we thought, but I can honestly say we loved her, and she made the apparently bored and boring MGMT look very average. (Here’s the only video of that gig I’ve found).

At Reading Festival that summer, she played to a curious and increasingly enthusiastic crowd of a few hundred in the smallest tent, and that winter she was bottom of the bill on the NME Tour along with Glasvegas, White Lies and Friendly Fires (what a line-up)!  Again, she was the star of the evening.

And now – with this album, there’s every chance Florence is going to rival Adele as the biggest UK music star in the world. Because this is just tremendous stuff, way beyond what we saw as potential back in the Astoria. What’s impressive is how “mainstream” much of Ceremonials is, in terms of huge tunes, big radio and i-Pod friendly production – yet at the same time, she is holding true to that bit of craziness in her soul. I can see a few indie kids talking about her “selling out” here when she sells trillions of copies, but to me she’s made that difficult transition to global mega-star – which is where this will take her - without losing her soul. Difficult second album? I don’t think so...

Only If For a Night (grammar, Florence, grammar!) opens things up with descending scales and some of her more comprehensible lyrics, taking us back to her school days. It’s a big song, and a bold start. Then we have Shake It Out, which has been the “single”, and just knocked me out when I first heard it - see the video below. I can’t explain why it moves me so much emotionally, as well as just sounding great. It’s my favourite track of the year to date, yet there are others here that come very close: What the Water Gave Me has also been a haunting “single”, while Heartlines with its African drumming and another huge chorus is a stand-out.

Florence + The Machine - Shake It Out from TGC on Vimeo.

Some reviewers have already criticised the length of the album and suggested the whole thing might be overly bombastic and overdone. Indeed, I’m surprised by the moderate reception in many reviews to date (but remember her first album only got 6/10 from the NME). And listening to the whole thing at once might be a bit like coping with the 10 course menu at a fine restaurant – just too much for one sitting. By half way through, I was thinking that a bracing 2-minute “Kiss with a Fist” (from her first album) type number wouldn’t have gone amiss here.

But I suspect Florence, like Lady Gaga, appreciates the reality of music these days – few people will listen to the whole thing straight through. Tracks will be used individually on TV shows (you can imagine at least half of these as backing on Twilight, Gossip Girl or similar), or heard on the radio, or as part of an iPod shuffle or Spotify playlist. So each has to stand on its merits, and I’d say probably 10 of the 12 tracks do exactly that. So look at it another way – almost an hour’s worth of great songs means great value for money. Or pay an extra three quid for the de-luxe version and get 3 more new tracks and half a dozen demos...

Any other negatives? Well, don’t expect Arctic Monkeys type witty, slice of life lyrics. If you know what “just keep following the heartlines on your head”, or “I’m always dragging that horse around” mean, please let me know. (Apart from, well, she’s always dragging that horse around...) There’ s a fair bit of mystical whimsy here (“seven devils in my house”, indeed..) but it fits perfectly with the no-holds barred production which uses multiple vocal tracks and at times almost Spector-like backing, with strings, piano, harp, percussion, kitchen sink, church organ.. There’s an awful lot going on here but the vast majority of it is good.

I don’t like making snap judgements – I find it takes months and multiple listens to get a true perspective of where albums sit in the longer term pantheon of greatness. So let’s not get carried away, and for now just say this is one of the best albums of the year, without a doubt. 9/10

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