Ask anyone who has heard a Florence + the Machine song to tell you about it and likely the first thing they’ll mention is Florence Welch’s voice. It is her one weapon, the one great asset she has, and the only one she really needs. Her voice gives her a captivating stage presence, makes her music suitable to soundtrack commercials and movies, and allowed her to cover The Source/Candi Staton’s classic “You Got The Love” without ruffling many feathers (although further use of her version by both The xx and Dizzee Rascal certainly grated on some people). The challenge for “the Machine” has always been to find the ideal surroundings for her voice, to both emphasise and contain it. On debut album Lungs, this mainly featured a lot of big drums. There were a number of other things going on, too, but they were generally simple, and it was always the percussion that seemed to be most prominent – hell, she even has a song on that album called “Drumming Song.” On the follow up album, Ceremonials, there is a lot more, and that emphasis of making something ‘big’ to suit her voice is even more pronounced.
Florence + the Machine’s music is essentially alternative pop, and all music that aims to be radio friendly lives and dies on the strength of its choruses. For Ceremonials‘ opening trio of songs that is no problem. Whether it’s the swaying “Only If For A Night,” the thumping “Shake It Out,” or the anthemic “What The Water Gave Me,” they all do their job well. They can be effective on a personal stereo, while imagining them blown up to stadium-size proportions is not difficult, and they give the listener something easy to sing along to in both of these arenas; but most importantly for Florence’s purposes – and most divisively for the listener – they give her ample opportunity to show off those powerful pipes, giving her time and space to hit long, impressive notes while there’ll be plenty of backing singers, claps, harps, pianos and lord-knows-what-else keeping things ticking beneath. These songs are Florence + the Machine in their element, and you’d have to be a joyless person not to take some kind of pleasure from them.
But, as with almost anything, a lot of ‘a lot’ will soon become too much. This is the problem that befalls the majority of the remainder; they follow roughly the same formula, but it seems even more emphasis is placed on Welch’s vocal theatrics – or perhaps it’s more a case of the more you listen, the more you realise how these songs are built around the voice. Songs like “Never Let Me Go” are perfectly functional, but rely too much on the constant repetition of the title and Florence singing histrionically as if beckoning someone back from the grave. Without the interesting arrangements of someone like Bat For Lashes (who does a similar-sounding thing) these kind of songs are insipid. When she tells us she’s “breaking down again” (in “Breaking Down”) we’re unmoved, since these layers of innocuous instruments and her constantly strong voice do not relay any genuine emotion.
The album is brought back to life by the doubleheader of “No Light, No Light” and “Seven Devils”; the former an organ-infused pounding statement of intent, and the latter a haunting ballad that brilliantly marries Welch’s lofty vocals to a creeping piano line. At this point we’re 37 minutes into the album, and, all things considered, it’s a strong outing that flows well with a powerful beginning and ending. But, we’re nowhere near done. There are still four songs and 20 minutes remaining; and herein lies one of the biggest problems of Ceremonials: it’s too long. These are pop songs, but almost all of them are approaching or beyond five minutes in length. Even worse, the last four songs include some of the weakest on the album.
It may be because at this point the album is already getting tiring, but songs like “Heartlines,” “All This And Heaven Too” and “Leave My Body” seem repetitious of material not only earlier on the album, but, also, from other female pop stars of years not so recently past. These concluding songs seem like Florence going through the motions, but that could be said of the whole of Ceremonials. It’s far from a bad album, but she and returning producer Paul Epworth seem thin on any ideas other than to pile on more instruments and sing louder. Even lyrically she seems to be treading water; where Lungs had references to the occult, here we have even more well-trodden mythological references with mentions of people like Atlas, and the Devil crops up more than once. Overall, Ceremonials leaves everyone’s opinions of Florence + the Machine in stasis; if you loved or hated her before, you’ll still feel the same way, if you were unsure, you’ll still be unsure. If she ever wants to be held on the same plane of artistic brilliance as her idols, like Kate Bush, then next time she’s going to have to try something a little more risky.