HIGH AS HOPE
Florence + the Machine
When it comes to describing Florence Welch, epithets often end up at the high end of superlatives - drama mama, stentorian-voiced diva, flame-hair Renaissance singer.
So, pardon yours truly when the hype for High As Hope, the fourth studio album from her band, Florence + the Machine, pitches it as her quietest, most understated.
That itself is an overstatement, especially when put beside the oeuvre of someone subtler like Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star or Tracey Thorn of Everything But The Girl.
It is more accurate then to describe this as her most directly biographical and least "show-offish". The first single, Sky Full Of Song, still brandishes her usual tics for lyrical and musical pomposity, pumped with gothic, sweeping sky and rain, but this time, she does not have to belt out the words every second.
The elemental imagery, however, alludes to gravity, a laying down of arms. "Hold me down, I'm so tired now/Aimed your arrow at the sky/ Take me down, I'm too tired now/ Leave me where I lie," she sings, still loud of course, but slightly softer than normal. She talks about a screaming fit at her father, but she does not wallow in it.
There are more open spaces to roam - you can hear the lingering vibration of a guitar riff, before a couple other Florences come trundling to provide backing vocals during the chorus.
In that sense, this candour to detail real-life incidents, to make amends and to address loved ones is laudable. She means to communicate and if that means scaling back the histrionics here and there, it can only be for the better.
Granted this translates to a schizophrenic battle of wills, one vulnerable and another defiant. South London Forever, which deals with her alcoholic binges, starts off wistfully, with a whispery vocal and a softly insistent key.
"And the places that I used to drink/Young and drunk and stumbling in the street," she comes clean on her infamous partying of yore. But soon, the galloping drums come in and she is caught up in a maelstrom of wuthering heights and lacerating lows.
That switchback, a knife's flick between stark confession and panoramic F/X, also characterises Hunger, a song where she confronts her eating disorder.
"At 17, I started to starve myself/I thought that love was a kind of emptiness/And at least I understood then the hunger I felt," she spells out in no uncertain terms. The song is anthemic, but the effect is fittingly uplifting, rather than melodramatic.
Grace is another winner. Dedicated to her poor suffering younger sibling, the ode is a big sisterly embrace. "I'm sorry I ruined your birthday, you had turned 18/And the sunshine hit me and I was behaving strangely," she apologises, quietly.
Nope, High As Hope isn't perfect and is better for it.
It is a transitional record, as she tries to shed old habits and put on new threads. Ambivalence suits her.