Album Review: Florence and the Machine – Ceremonials

Although ceremonies differ around the world, there are a few constants. The event is usually personally and culturally significant, a performance of some sort occurs, and there’s a direct tie to love, whether it be for another person, country, etc. Florence and the Machine’s second album fits all those criteria. Ceremonials is a focused, spiritual effort that will please fans of Lungs without being a retread. Rather than hitting you with mega-singles, this sophomore release dives into a world of intricate music that circles around magnificent vocals.

Still, “Shake It Out” will definitely be the “Dog Days Are Over” this time around. Florence Welch navigates through pulsing organs and a maze of clichés, adding her own dark twist to the familiar sayings (“I’m always dragging that horse around… Tonight I’m gonna bury that horse in the ground”). The song culminates in an ecstatic, explosive chorus, encouraging you to shake off that “devil on your back.” It’s a joyous, life-affirming single that hits all the right notes, both musically and emotionally. Hope you all enjoy this song; you’ll be hearing it about a thousand more times over the next year.

Musically, Ceremonials isn’t as varied as Lungs, but it makes up ground with impeccable flow and lush instrumentation. “What the Water Gave Me” starts with deeply reverberating gongs and some sly background guitar patterns. Rather than swinging for the skies, the chorus drops most of the music in favor of a choir of voices, only to climb for new heights in the next verse. “Breaking Down” would be an ideal song for release around the holidays, with its chiming Christmas bells and heartwarming strings. Gorgeous layers of piano and harp are positioned over a scraping, irate rhythm in “All This & Heaven Too”, perfectly translating Welch’s frustration over expressing her love. Lyrically, the message is just as powerful, with segments like “Words, poor language/doesn’t deserve such treatment/And all my stumbling phases never amounted/to anything worth this feeling.” Heavenly indeed.

Of course, the centerpiece of Florence and the Machine is the vocals. Welch’s voice was impressive on her debut, but that was just a warm-up act. Want some strong technique? In “Only If for a Night”, no two verses are sung similarly. She fires her way through different pitches over the course of a couple lines with equal parts control and passion. Interested more in power? Listen to the 12-second note she belts out in “No Light, No Light”. Add the performance here to her last LP, and you essentially have the Swiss Army knife of vocalists.

Ceremonials’ greatest strength is also the direct cause behind its few weaknesses. A good number of tracks are musically flat, using Welch’s ability as a crutch. “Lover to Lover”, “Seven Devils”, and “Heartlines” all sound good enough while listening, but you’ll forget their melodies in two songs’ time. A second flaw is the lack of intimacy found within the vocals. From start to finish, Welch sounds like she’s shouting from a mountain or in a huge church. There’s echo everywhere. “I’m Not Calling You a Liar” felt like she was singing in your ear. On this album, she’s singing into the ether. Hints of that close, warm vocalization can be found on “Spectrum”, but it lasts only until the dubstep beat comes in. While this issue doesn’t make the vocals any less impressive, it does create an unnecessary distance between artist and audience.

Florence and the Machine’s second album is certainly a move in the right direction. Where Lungs felt like an exploration in sounds, Ceremonials is tightly focused in an ethereal style that fits with Welch’s voice. She sounds passionate, professional, spiritual, scientific, inspired, and excited. Sometimes, that’s all in one song. Most of all, no matter what’s changed or what’s being sung about, she’s got the love.

Essential Tracks: “Only If for a Night”, “Shake It Out”, and “All This & Heaven Too”


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