Jul 09 2018
Florence and the Machine's New Feminist Sensibility
“High as Hope”, the band’s latest album, is timely and pleasingly complex.
Kristi York Wooten
FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE, a British indie band, marked the release of their new album on June 29th with a live televised performance from Central Park in New York. Backed by a six-piece band that included a harpist, Florence Welch sang a selection of singles from “High as Hope” before security guards hoisted her above the crowd for the encore of “Shake It Out”, a hit from 2011. As fans grabbed at Ms Welch’s billowing robe in the humid morning air, the scene looked more like a Renaissance painting than a promotional event.
Over the past decade, Ms Welch has made her name both as a hitmaker and as a kind of strong-willed sprite. Her belting alto, floor-length floral gowns, flowing red tresses and rhapsodic tambourine stand out in an industry which often places a premium on bare skin and over-sexualised lyrics. Now, in the era of #MeToo, Florence and the Machine go beyond wisp and whimsy.
Ms Welch writes about love in the 21st century with the same frankness as her musical peers, but she relies upon lyrical introspection and intricate musical arrangements rather than admonitions. While Beyoncé weaves male lovers’ wrongdoings into calls to action for her fellow women to “get in formation”, Ms Welch warbles a capella and warns herself about losing control in “Sky Full of Song”. “I can hear the sirens, but I cannot walk away,” she sings: a swell of strings supports her pleading voice.
Driven by piano, strings and choir-filled choruses, the songs on “High As Hope” are subtle but potent, and timely without being sensationalist. “South London Forever” raises questions of sexual desire, consent and intoxication. The speaker recalls being “high on E”, “holding hands with someone I just met” and forgetting her own name, but “What else could be better than this?” A horn section creates a sense of nostalgia and longing, undermined by a relentless, disquieting beat. “Did I dream too big?” the refrain asks. “Oh God, what do I know?”
As such, the songs blur images of joy, fear and redemption with the struggles of modern womanhood. Ms Welch links topics such as eating disorders, drugs, suicide and technology to spiritual themes, and views them through a feminist lens. The pounding “Hunger” equates starvation with a yearning to be society’s—and God’s—version of the perfect girl. The moody “Big God”, co-written by Jamie XX, is a dark chant about how women deal with the emptiness of virtual communication and unreturned text messages in the form of “ghosting”. Ms Welch cries out “Jesus Christ, it hurts” but a saxophone changes the timbre of the tune from desperation to determination. The listener wonders if the speaker is directing her scorn toward a former lover or to God.
Ms Welch also uses “High as Hope” to celebrate women close to her. “Patricia” is dedicated to muse and feminist rock star Patti Smith, with thanks for her advice about coping with today’s acerbic political and religious rhetoric: “In a city where reality has long been forgotten, are you afraid? ‘Cause I'm terrified, but you remind me that it’s such a wonderful thing to love.” “Grace”, co-written by Sampha, is a lovely piano ballad about lost sisterhood; “The End of Love” is a mournful ode to Ms Welch’s grandmother, who killed herself. That song in particular is a triumph of musical restraint, with a crescendo of layered voices creating something both soft and strong.
At a time when many female performers struggle to combine power and vulnerability, Ms Welch delivers a much-needed complexity. Among this year’s crop of rock, hip-hop and pop singers, successful acts such as Cardi B, Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa offer songs about real-life dilemmas but rarely allow the emotional walls and computerised beats to fall away. With “High As Hope” Ms Welch makes a virtue of her feminism and her pain.