Florence is a machine. When Florence Welch burst to prominence two years ago, fronting a five-piece rock band as vigorous as any that's emerged from the U.K. in recent memory, it was clear that she was something special: a vocalist with extra horsepower who hurtled through love songs like a truck tearing down an empty highway on a moonless night.
Florence and the Machine's second album is as dark, robust and romantic as ever, but a revving 18-wheeler is no longer the apt metaphor for Welch's voice. Listen to her hooting and growling on "Only If for a Night," a ballad somewhere between classic soul and midnight-on-the-moors English art rock. Listen to "Shake It Out," a treatise on heartbreak and spiritual rebirth. "I am done with my graceless heart/So tonight I'm gonna cut it out and then restart," she cries, over guitars and keyboards that heave and chime. This is the sound of a human turbine – a wind machine.
On their 2009 debut, Florence and the Machine were a wiry rock band with a taste for melodrama. Here the scale is vastly inf lated: turbulent ballads, powered by booming drums and vocal chorales rising like distant thunder, full of Welch's banshee wails. The music touches on Celtic melodies, bluesy rock stomps, nods to goth and gospel. But the wind never stops howling.
Welch is a hopeless romantic obsessed with bad romance. Song after song casts relationships as struggle, with a hair's breadth separating rapture from disaster. For Welch, love is a force as vast and violent as nature itself. In "What the Water Gave Me," a spurned lover goes to a watery grave: "Oh, my love, don't forget me/I let the water take me/Lay me down/Let the only sound/Be the overflow."
This is a very British record, drawing on a tradition of iconoclastic U.K. pop that stretches from Kate Bush and Siouxsie and the Banshees to PJ Harvey. There's also a hint of another large-lunged Englishwoman here. Listen to "Lover to Lover," where Welch blasts out a gospel-soul-style lead vocal over an arrangement that winks at the thudding backbeat of classic Motown. Adele, anyone?
The rock band most forcefully evoked on Ceremonials is one of the biggest of all time: U2. Like them, Florence and the Machine are a true band, who channel garage-rock camaraderie into a huge, lashing sound more fit for an Olympian mountain peak than a garage. And like U2, Florence and the Machine are fronted by a singer with the pipes, and the shamelessness, to pull off the melodrama – to turn the ridiculous into the sublime. 2011 has been a banner year for left-of-center women rockers, from St. Vincent to Feist to Laura Marling. Those women are boutique stars, as, for the moment, is Florence Welch. But Ceremonials suggests she could be a rock star, and a big one. The album concludes with the rock-gospel uplift of "Leave My Body," as Welch roars out a vision of transcendence: "I'm gonna leave my body/Moving up to higher ground/Lose my mind." It's a big song, with a big, brash, Bono-worthy sentiment. And a voice to match.
Listen to "Shake It Out":