Much has been made of Florence Welch’s supposed stripping down on her third album. She’s traded in the billowing dresses for Nick Cave-esque suits! She’s ditched her embellished pop songs for something more raw, rock ‘n’ roll, and immediate!
This is the part where I tell you not to believe the hype.
Is How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful more raw, rock-oriented and immediate than its predecessors? Yes, but that doesn’t mean that Welch has disowned the gilded pop songs on which she’s built her career. While her third album is a noticeable leap forward from the whimsical naiveté of 2009’s Lungs and the dark passions of 2011’s Ceremonials, let’s not act like Welch has gone lo-fi.
And thank god for that. Welch excels at mixing contemporary pop and rock sensibilities with the overtly orchestral, and delivers one brilliant combination after another on this outing. She explodes over a forceful blues riff on the stunning “What Kind of Man”, then incites a jubilant celebration of love and the Los Angeles sky on the title track. “Queen of Peace” follows, a wounded ballad brimming with poignant strings and Welch’s impressive storytelling ability. This album really is stunner after stunner after stunner.
It’s marvelous to see Welch command each stunner with finesse and conviction. Her tremendous voice spreads over her vast melodies and detailed arrangements, conveying the kind of hard-won wisdom only harrowing experience can offer. Something has shifted in her emotional landscape, the places she used to happily dwell will no longer suffice.
She acknowledges as much during “Mother”, singing, “No use wishing on the water / It grants you no relief.” Gone is her obsession with the water and her willingness to be a victim. She sheds her past identity as the long suffering woman over a dark bassline and her trademark harp on album closer “Make Up Your Mind”, a phenomenal testament to newfound strength and maturity.
Much of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful dazzles, inevitably drowning out several of the softer tracks in the process. Only the tender “St. Jude” manages to hold its own amidst the blinding light of its surroundings. The understated “Various Storms and Saints” gets lost in the fray, despite featuring some of the album’s best lyrics (“You saw the stars out in front of you, too tempting not to touch / But even though it shocked you, something’s electric in your blood.”)
Welch has always been many women: a sorceress, an artist, a muse, a lover, and a dreamer. Here she manifests herself as warrior and empress, a women whose vulnerabilities no longer render her breakable. She does herself a disservice by finishing the record just under the hour mark, a space too brief to capture the grandeur of her artistry and person.
And yet all of Welch’s selves are still illuminated in brilliant color on the album, each one intense and fully realized. In being so many women, Welch is ultimately becoming herself. And witnessing her do so on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is absolutely astounding.