Florence Welch is the big sister you wish you had: wild enough to be a co-conspirator, together enough to be an inspiration, even a role model. On High As Hope, the fourth and most intimate Florence + the Machine LP, she recalls hijinks on MDMA, confesses to an eating disorder, and apologizes for ruining your birthday. Or someone’s, anyhow. It’s cool, though — you’ll forgive her, ‘cause that’s just Flo, y’know?
Her confidences may be performative, but they’re palpable. “June” opens with a slow-drawn breath, upright bass tones, muffled piano chords, and a shivering admission – perhaps to a lover, or maybe just a drug buddy — of being so high that Welch can’t help repeating “I’m so high.” On “Big God,” a Prince-like conflation of religious imagery and sexual innuendo, she gets rawer still, announcing “you need a big God/big enough to fill you up” in a guttural heave, gulping for air, amidst synth flashes and orchestral brass, unfurling an extended animal snarl right before a Kamasi Washington saxophone coda. In the spirit of Kate Bush, it’s the tangible sound of a purebred hound of love.
Credit the heightened intimacy and experimentation in part to the production. Gone is the rotating cast of A-list producers, notably pointman Paul Epworth (Adele, Coldplay), the Sir Christopher Wren of English pop. Instead Welch co-produced the entire set with Emile Haynie, best known for his tight-focus atmospherics with Lana Del Rey. The duo build tracks from Welch’s mostly naked voice, ramping up into her signature hall-of-mirrors gospel choirs against slow or midtempo grooves. It gets a bit samey over the course of the record, but it’s effective, and the space around Welch’s mighty voice gives every nuance room to be heard.
Now that she’s filling arenas, the challenge for Welch seems to be maintaining her brand’s around-the-way-girl vibe. You hear it in “Patricia,” a fangirl paean to Patti Smith delivered with a Motown stomp and swirling orchestrations; “The End Of Love,” a mash note about songwriting and a “summer in New York” (where Welch worked on the LP with Haynie) lofted on handclaps; and “South London Forever,” an anthemic reverie about youthful adventures that namechecks landmark LGBT pub The Joiners Arms. To similar ends, she’s also published a diary-style scrapbook, Useless Magic, full of lyrics, doodles, snapshots, poetry fragments and elaborate selfies mimicking museum art. It’s art as sharing-of-secrets, and it’s echoed in High As Hope’s finale, “No Choir,” unique on the LP because, surprise: no choir. It’s just Welch and a piano, whispering “I gathered you here/to hide from some vast unnameable fear,” as she’ll likely be doing soon at an arena near you.