(Universal Republic) Ceremonials is studio album number two from Florence Welch and her band, better known as Florence and the Machine. The baroque pop outfit from the UK return with a sound that is more silky, more smooth, but also more percussively trippy and more soul-centric. In contrast to 2009's debut release, Lungs, which was a truly breathy Pop affair, Ceremonials has all the feeling of a gospel church with the walls blown out with exhuberance, guile, and gusto.
Paul Epworth, who had been a collaborating producer on the debut, returns as lone producer and tunes into the element of Florence and the Machine's sound that balances the line between 'out there' and accessible alt-pop. Whilst some folk notice the strong strand of DNA that belongs to the lineage of Kate Bush sound -- perhaps because Welch is a female who deals in emotional absurdities, twists of realism, and melodic hooks that drive ever deeper with each listen -- the likeness, though complimentary, is not as true to form as is deserving of Welch and Co. There is a sense that the material on this latest dispatch belongs more to the bloodline of Bowie at his familiar unusual best than it does to any other musical family likeness. Epworth develops the potential force of Lungs and lets the senses burn a different, fuller range of colors.
Welch's voice reaches not only the back of the room, but the back of everything. There's a trick of singing at volume whilst remaining intimate, of addressing archetypes and historical figures whilst remaining personable, very much like the nature of a ceremony which attaches private meaning to a tradition and practice that belongs to a larger institutional belief.
In “What the Water Gave Me,” Welch takes inspiration from the suicidal drowning of renowned author Virginia Woolf. There's a strange taste of euphoria within the tune; rumor has it that drowning -- oxygen starvation -- elates the brain, so whilst this is an undoubtedly sad twist in the fluidity of the tune, as percussion swells to crescendo, the abandonment is delicious. “Lay me down / Let the only sound / Be the over flow / Pockets full of stones” is a verse of promise and fulfillment rather than of resignation and regret. By the time Welch whispers, “Would you have it any other way?” the seduction is complete. We all want to go to the water. The real magic is that Welch takes aspects of an iconic figure, a terrible literary loss, and a complicated personal decision to compose of a piece of unique art that unifies an audience without explicitly describing meaning; through all of the complexities comes a simply stand-out track.
“No Light, No Light” is a pounding song. Pipe organ, crunched percussion, an ethereal backing vocal, and a strumming harp bring depth along with volume to proceedings. Welch's vocal performance here, and the way which Epworth handles the drum-work really expresses their singular vision. It's here that we see why the label flirted with handing Florence and the Machine over to the R 'n' B producers; there's a whole bunch of stuff going on that explains why famous fans like Beyonce Knowles bestow praise on the tunes. However, what could swagger out of control with thunderous beats and chanted verses is tempered into a far more potent presence, simply by pounding on the lid of the box to contain the energies within. This could easily have turned into something Pop; instead, it graciously turns Pop into something bigger, better, and ironically (given the title) brighter.
Given the nature of Lungs and the stigma attached to the “difficult second album” for artists such as Florence and the Machine, this latest offering represents a major step forward. It doesn't rely on previous achievements; it's not as simple as being bigger, or louder, as some folk are suggesting. This is an album that shows a true maturity of ambition. Subject matter and lyrical approach have accelerated beyond craft, and rather than playing into the hands of expectant fans, here's an album that leaps above what many could have hoped for.
Standout Tracks: “What the Water Gave Me,” “No Light, No Light,” “Shake It Out”
For Fans Of: Zola Jesus, David Bowie, Johanna & The Dusty Floor