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.
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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.