A few years I ago I read a deliciously catty remark in a Guardian obituary of a pompous grandee that went along the lines of, ‘He was difficult to ignore but it was worth the effort’. It would be harsh to apply the same sentiment to Florence Welch, but the first half of the sentence is certainly apt. This strikingly tall red-haired woman, channelled on drowning Ophelia via an expansive wardrobe and crossed with a long limbed ballerina, is indeed difficult to ignore, as was ‘You Got The Love’ which heralded her arrival in 2010, but there the similarity stops. I enjoyed that first album with her Machine, dark as it was in parts, felt the second one was a bit strained, and was drawn to the recently released third by its phenomenal out-of-the-box success, which also can’t be ignored, even if the reviews I read were on the mediocre side.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful has been produced by Markus Dravs whose magic touch has graced albums by, amongst others, Arcade Fire, Coldplay and Mumford & Sons, and who was doubtless charged with the task of pushing Florence into the same tier of success. It has been preceded by a period of extreme calm by Florence’s standards during which she appears to have stepped back a bit – which must have been a challenge – and, if the interviews are to be believed, tempered her intemperance. The last I saw of her until last week’s press blitz was singing ‘Gimme Shelter’ with The Rolling Stones at the O2 in December 2012, and a pretty decent job she made of upstaging Jagger too, and now comes the news that she’ll be headlining Glastonbury on the Friday, Dave Grohl having broken his leg during a concert in Sweden on June 12 and been forced to step down as the night’s star turn.
So, into the breech steps Florence armed with a brand new album that, to these ears, seems a good deal more commercially targeted than its predecessors, with the opener ‘Ship To Wreck’ exploding out of my speakers like mid-Seventies Fleetwood Mac, full on pop rock, metronomic drums, jangling guitars and a double-tracked chorus that Stevie Nicks would die for. The comparison doesn’t end there, of course, for Florence and Stevie seem to share an ideological bent in common too, not to mention the twirly dancing and antique dresses. Things don’t let up with track two, ‘What Kind Of Man’, all distorted guitars, high-pitched trumpets and Florence leaving no doubt that the man in question has displeased her a great deal.
The pressure doesn’t ease off on the title track either, its intro deceptively melodic until the pounding drums take up the slack and lead us into another full tilt rocker, by which time comes the realisation that the ‘how big’ of the title is precisely the intention. This is a big album, chock full of powerful hooks, radio-friendly melodies, extravagant orchestration, big arrangements, with everything bar the kitchen sink, including what sounds like a full-on Mariachi band on ‘Queen Of Peace’, thrown in to ramp up the extravaganza.
Some respite comes with ‘Long And Lost’, which has a touch of Clannad-like mystery about it, and ‘Caught’ which follows, a meditation on private dilemma, the demons that occupy her thoughts and inspire many of these songs, but by the home straight we’re back on track, ‘Third Eye’ and ‘Mother’ offering Florence plenty of opportunity to express herself mightily, this pair spliced by the more contemplative, organ-based ‘St Jude’, a song about the patron saint of lost causes.
But Florence is certainly no lost cause. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful amply succeeds in its aim to elevate her to mainstream acceptance on a level that no other British girl is attaining right now, at least until Adele steps back into the ring (and assuming Kate Bush's exertions last year render her inert for another decade). Then again – and this is the problem I have with albums like this, that is albums whose appeal is immediate – it’s charms may be short lived. It’s the albums that grow on you over a long period whose allures last a lifetime.