Music Reviews

Florence and the Machine Ceremonials

(Island) Rating - 6/10

Honestly, if asked to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with Florence + the Machine it would be difficult to know where to start. Is the most irritating thing about them (or rather her) the half-baked mysticism that aims for profundity but comes across more teenager on a first trip to Glastonbury? Or is it her voice, straining so hard for the operatic but more often ending up in the vicinity of foghorn? Perhaps the most damaging flaw is the extremely formulaic nature of her material; it always aims to be big, raucous and uplifting and yet somehow tasteful, and always ends up getting rather exhausting. Despite all this, there's still something about her that makes it all work. Just about. There might be a myriad of arguments against the girl's pop career, but she still has a very clear appeal, thanks to a level of eagerness that's almost charming and her knowing the value of a good sing/yell-a-long, or a strong rhythm section, or even a well-placed harp solo.

To be fair to her, after her first album made her the darling of moody teens, fashion designers and film and TV soundtrackers, not to mention one of the few recent British acts to break the US, you can't really blame her for sticking to the same formula. It's just annoying that it's such a derivative one - the Gang Gang Dance plagiarism charges have already been well documented, but the bulk of her sound draws from a couple of decades prior, with producer Paul Epworth relying on the trusted, if slightly treble-heavy, post-punk revival sound (which has already served him well with Bloc Party, Futureheads and the like) while Florence emulates the acts of the slightly wild, eccentric pop-stars of era, specifically Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux, even down to appropriating their influences, specifically the imagery, not to mention the attitude, of the Pre-Raphaelites, resulting in her constructing a precarious tower of nostalgia balanced on top of more nostalgia. When on All This And Heaven Too she starts going on about education and poetry it's clear that these are not the words of someone interested in capturing the experience of her generation, setting her apart from most of her peers, and perhaps going some way to explaining her international success.

In fact, the lyrics are a very good place to start when discussing the problems with Ceremonials, as, much like her vocals, they strive so hard for sublime perfection that it gets a bit wearying. Things start very much as they mean to go on with the gothic sketchiness of Only If For A Night, even if the song's themes of loss and mortality are rendered somewhat twee with its mentions of practical ghosts and doing handstands in graveyards. Similar subject matter pops up all over the album and, generally, Florence doesn't make it easy to go along with. Barely a moment passes by where she doesn't leap on the chance to revel in some overly-wrought drama, even making the words "Wednesday afternoon" feel like a matter of life and death. The only appropriate response to something like Seven Devils (sample line: "I was dead when I woke up this morning/I'll be dead before the day is done"), is an eye-roll and maybe a muttered "Oh for heaven's sake Florence", as if correcting a five-year-old. Somehow that's not even the worst of it, instead that honour belongs to Spectrum; it's doubtful that the world's been crying out for Welch's thoughts on racism, but she offers them anyway here, along with a supposedly euphoric but actually kind of terrifying bellow of "Say my name" for a chorus.

So, in other words, it's all pretty much business as usual. To an extent. This new material may be cut from the same cloth as Lungs, but it's missing something that album had. It might be hard to remember now thanks to their ubiquity but Dog Days Are Over, Rabbit Heart and especially (before it was ruined by being used on every TV talent show) her cover of You Got The Love all had a lightness of touch to them. Perhaps Florence forgot this herself, blinded by her obvious determination to create a coherent sense of 'atmosphere' on Ceremonials. Even many of the album's more obviously joyous moments, such as the the rousing heart of Shake It Out (which will no doubt go down a storm during her admittedly excellent live shows), feel a bit weighed down by their own artifice.


And now, after taking up the bulk of this review with trashing her (once started it's difficult to stop), to attempt a complete volte-face and claim that Ceremonials is actually a fairly rewarding listen. Even at her most ridiculous Florence doesn't forget how to write a good hook, and there are some exceptional moments here: Future single No Light, No Light may feature a note so shrill and protracted that surely Florence is launching an outright assault on her listeners' hearing, but the chorus and counter-harmonies are absolutely exquisite (just don't listen to it too loud); What The Water Gave Me stays just the right side of mysterious, and it features some lovely harp-work; despite the dodgy lyrics, the gang vocals of Only If For A Night are undeniably effective; and closing track Leave My Body practically demands a tragic romance to soundtrack (some similar arrangements featured on Feist's recent album and frankly this pales in comparison, but that doesn't mean that it's bad).  Her emphasis on the dramatic does also mean that she stays rather more on point that someone like, say, Bat For Lashes. Like hanging out with drama students it's not advisable to do it for too long (attempting to make it through the album in one go resulted in my getting both a headache and a mild panic attack), but it's fun for a while all the same.

Ceremonials' biggest sin by far is the fact that there's just too much of it - too much noise, too much drama, too much music in general, coming in at just under an hour, although perhaps not so much in terms of meaning (that's not to say that her sound and fury signify nothing, it's just that one suspects the end product isn't quite as edifying as Florence intended it to be) - none of which serves to push her sound forward. Unless, that is, you include the tracks left off for the Deluxe Edition. After making it through the album proper the thought of sitting through more of Florence's drama might not seem particularly appealing, but the extended version does something that the album itself fails to by throwing up some surprises. Specifically, Remain Nameless, which may for the most part owe something of a debt to Zola Jesus, but at least its minimal electronica does see Florence attempt something new, and it does come with a genuinely unsettling mid-section in which Florence and her backing singers' voices merge into a muddy mass. The other new tracks, Bedroom Hymns and Strangeness And Charm, though less of a departure, are still considerably lighter than most of the album itself.

As it stands, the best that could be said about Ceremonials is that it's a pleasant enough listen that will change absolutely nobody's mind about Florence and her machine. It's just a shame that she and her team weren't a little bit braver (and prudent) with the track selection.