Florence + The Machine
Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine (photo by Vincent Haycock, PR)
Florence + the Machine
High as Hope
The journey of virtually every creative being — whether a musician, a novelist, or a visual artist — launches from one of two points of origin: chaos and healing. Both are often connected, like devastating heartbreak followed by newfound love, or booze-fueled stumbles metamorphosizing into clear-eyed resurrections.
Sometimes an artist dwells in turmoil indefinitely, but it's the voyage between the poles of disquiet and hope that's more compelling (and sustainable). Profound breakthroughs, both personal and artistic, become possible, especially when excavating a shambolic past to make sense of a more lucid, and livable, present.
Florence Welch, the guiding force of the London's Florence + the Machine, has spoken extensively in recent interviews about her sobriety over the last couple of years, after spending the bulk of her teens and twenties leaning heavily on drink and drugs. (Both 2009's Lungs and 2011's Ceremonials were recorded in the thick of that dazed, hungover maelstrom.) A substance-free lucidity of mind, body, and spirit infuses every corner of the band's fourth album, High as Hope, arguably Welch's most autobiographical release. While 2015's majestic How Big, How Bold, How Beautiful was an early lap in her marathon of recovery, the wound of a shattered romance still hobbled her (as did a broken foot, early in her tour). But here, with High as Hope, Welch reveals intimate details about herself, diligent in self-mending as a woman, an artist, a sister, a daughter, a lover, and a friend.
Possessing a mighty Mount Kilimanjaro of a voice, Welch has never shied from scaling mezzo-soprano summits in her songs — and there are plenty of lofty heights reached on High as Hope, like the galvanizing "South London Forever," a keening ode to her Camberwell youth. With lyrics fecund with metaphor, as Welch recalls an inebriated past with "art students and the boys in bands" weaving "like foals unsteady on their feet," the song is both yearning nostalgia and a farewell to those destructive days. Another brute confession, "Hunger," bravely lays bare Welch's past eating disorder and trembles with the slow-building urgency of a difficult conversation. It's high drama, driven by a Greek chorus of percussive claps and rising to a crescendo of synths and keys, as Welch's voice swoops and soars like a hawk freed from its tether and jesses.
There are gentler revelations too, like the searing ballad "Grace," Welch's fervent apology to her younger sister for years of bad behavior, co-written with Tobias Jesso Jr. and 2017 Mercury Prize winner and fellow South Londoner Sampha, who is also on piano. The highlight of the entire album might well be the astonishingly beautiful "The End of Love," another collaboration with Jesso — a hopeful anthem of letting go of a tattered relationship.
It's a happy surprise to hear tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington figuring so prominently throughout the album, offering a throaty, gripping response to Welch's siren calls on tracks like "South London Forever," "100 Days," and the gutteral groan and cry of "Big God," the latter also featuring Jamie xx of The xx on drums and synths. For the first time, Welch co-produced a Florence + the Machine album, collaborating with Emile Haynie who has worked extensively with mainstream usual suspects like Lana Del Rey, Eminem, and Bruno Mars.
Writing about contentment has its own limitations as Welch observes, with an insightful shrug and good humor, in "No Choir," the album's finale. It's her quiet – and very true — summation of a life shaped by the professional demand to create music, noting: "And it's hard to write about being happy because the older I get/I find that happiness is an extremely uneventful subject/and there would be no grand choirs to sing/no chorus could come in about two people sitting, doing nothing."
Welch has always been an audacious whirlwind of a live performer — dancing barefoot with abandon (in fact, one track on High as Hope, called "Patricia," is inspired by Patti Smith). Matching Welch's thrilling onstage vivacity with a studio album that matches that raw charisma has always been the challenge for Florence + the Machine — akin to shoving a hummingbird into cage. Here, her candor, self-reckoning, and tempest of a voice conjoin as a compelling troika, and High as Hope shines as a worthy testament to her fiercely unpredictable spirit. And as hard as her travels might have been to get to this point, Florence Welch sounds supremely assured of where she wants — and needs — to be.