It's safe to say that all three of Florence + the Machine's albums have been radically different from each other. The first, Lungs, contains three styles: torch songs, 'big' songs, and girl group pop songs. Weighted, there are more of the first two styles, and to me only 'Dog Days Are Over' and 'Between Two Lungs' fall into the third category, but taken as a whole it feels nicely balanced stylistically.
Their second album, Ceremonials, pointedly favors 'big' songs. This was cool with me because I had loved 'Cosmic Love' and 'Blinding' so much, and now I had even more in 'Seven Devils,' 'Heartlines,' 'No Light, No Light,' 'Spectrum' - wait, actually, the entire second half of the album. Which in hindsight, was not the best choice. (Dudes, it was nominated for Best Pop Album at the Grammy's and lost to Kelly Clarkson. Whom I love, BUT STILL) Ultimately the album felt bogged down in the heaviness, and this was pointed out a lot by fans who were hoping for an album that contained torch songs in the vein of 'Girl With One Eye' from Lungs. They could see what I couldn't because I'd gotten what I wanted. Ha.
Now, with How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, F+TM have refocused again, this time favoring the girl group pop. If this was a conscious decision, it makes sense - moving away from the mistakes of the previous album but still mining the potential in a style not unprecedented for Flo. It also made it easier, I think, to introduce a much wider range of dynamics and expression with the several moodier, rock-influenced songs on the album. There are no highs higher than anything in their catalogue, but there are much lower lows and it is fantastic.
There is also a noticeable difference in the songwriting. The lyrics finally sound like they come directly from her experiences, instead of consisting mostly of literary enigmas which, while interesting, ultimately can prevent one from fully immersing in a song. 'Various Storms and Saints' is a great example of a track which might be tossed aside as initially uninteresting, except the words and the way she owns them turn it into a performance that gets more urgent and beautiful the longer she sings. Those words are raw, too: "I don't know how I don't just stand outside and scream."
'Long and Lost' is my favorite. It’s so completely different for her, and so wonderfully dark and atmospheric; really stellar production. In this song she’s in the second-guessing phase of a breakup, and the words ‘is it too late to come on home?/are all those bridges now old stones?’ are very affecting, and exactly the turn of phrase she would have avoided in favor of something more impenetrable in the old days.
It is too late to come home (as she eventually sings), and I just can't get enough of the metaphor of the old stones. I've always been fascinated by the way things change over time; how people change, how circumstances change; even just growing up or just getting older creates change. Time won't be stopped, and sometimes it acts like a universal solvent, and sometimes that means the link to something or someone you cared about inevitably corrodes, and you can't go home again.
People like to always point out that Flo's lyrics consistently mention water of one kind or another (kind of like 'look, Ma! A metaphor!'), and articles on HBHBHB often cite producer Markus Drav's insistence that she stay away from that imagery this time around. Well, it didn't work, but more importantly there's a lyrical emergence of the archetypal 'mother.' (There's literally a song called 'Mother')
Both water and moms are fundamental pieces of existence but there's something more archetypal, even haunting, about the latter. See, water is romanticized, even when it's a metaphor for death; water is beautiful, water is deep. But Mother - she represents the dark, thoughtless need of first consciousness; she exists long before sentience and individuality. She protects, she's (hopefully) ever-present. She covers us when we're the most vulnerable and holds us when we're at our least able. That fact that Flo calls out for Mother several times across this album is huge - and I have yet to see a reviewer mention this.
Side dissertation on her emotional state: it seems she was caught up in an obsessive or addictive relationship, which for all intents and purposes boils down to ‘can’t live with him, can’t live without him.’ And that decision to live for herself instead of for the inconsistent, unreliable affections of someone who would never be fully present was not an easy one, as the entire album illustrates. Lines like ‘Some things you let go in order to live’ and ‘Let me leave or let me love you’ define the eternal struggle with no resolution that she endured; in essence, be in ‘love’ and losing her mind, or be free and empty (and she mentions the flight to freedom a lot, almost as much as I italicize).
You can see how all this is great fodder for an album, and why it demanded and resulted in such literal, personal lyrics.
There are plenty of standouts on the album. 'St. Jude' has made a big splash (no pun intended) with reviewers and for good reason, as it is one of the two softest songs she's ever recorded (the other being 'Long and Lost'), and it's absolutely gorgeous and ethereal. St. Jude, who before sainthood had a gig as one of Jesus' disciples, is the patron saint of lost and impossible causes (so, my patron saint), and also the name of a real-life 2013 European storm that Flo also alludes to in 'Various Storms and Saints.' It could almost wrap up the album if it wanted to, since these lyrics so wonderfully encapsulate her resolve to remember, move on, and be free: "And I'm learning, so I'm leaving/and even though I'm grieving/I'm trying to find the meaning/Let loss reveal it."
I think that the song doesn't even need the heartbeat-pulse that underlies the instrumentation, if I'm being a picky classical music snob about it; I think it would be absolute perfection with no rhythm section at all. But alas.
'Delilah' is another popular favorite, and even though she mentions dancing ("never know I was a dancer/till Delilah showed me how") it seriously does make one want to dance. It's all about waiting for dood to get in contact with her - and I adore how clever this lyric is: "Climbing up the wall for that flashing light." Get it? It's the notification light when you have a missed call or text! Yeah, I don't know why I'm that excited about it, either.
'Third Eye,' 'Queen of Peace' and 'What Kind of Man' are great too. In fact, I think 'What Kind of Man' should have led off the album, rather than being stuck in the #2 slot. It starts off reeeal moody and creepy with Flo's vocals essentially paralleled by a ghoul (I kid, but really), which would make listeners think this album is just an extension of Ceremonials - but then the guitar hits kick in and, to most randomly quote Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2, "This is a brand new day, ladies and gentlemen."
The only songs I’m ambivalent about are 'HBHBHB,' 'Caught,' and 'Ship to Wreck.' It’s not a complaint, though, because they’re fully competent songs.
The album proper ends with 'Mother,' which I can’t listen to without imagining the Woodstock stage, and while it’s a fine approximation of the rock of that era (a little Hendrix, a little Morrison, etc.?), the ending is just straight-up glorious. I’ve never been a fan of songs with long instrumental codas, but this is my one huge exception, and why I said 'St. Jude' could almost end the album.
The bonus tracks are great. You can tell what type of Flo fan someone is by how much they love 'Which Witch,' because it would fit so perfectly on Ceremonials - right before or after it's creepier, unholier cousin 'Seven Devils.' Fans who are somewhat unhappy with this album seem to consistently cite this song (a bonus track!) as their favorite. In all fairness it's pretty stellar and shows off just how deeply Flo understands melody.
'Make Up Your Mind' is the one song to overtly feature harp, and it's a nice shot of nostalgia for the old days. 'Hiding' is terrific 80s pop; the lyrics come from a time when she still thought there was hope for the relationship, and no matter how distant or closed-off he was, she was going to stay the course. Sad. It helps complete the whole arc of their story – most of the songs are from her darkest times but how one gets stuck in the dark is important, too.
The two demos are cool, although ‘Third Eye’ is kind of atonal and experimental, not my cup of tea.
I've said all that to say that in my opinion this is her best album yet, and it’s my highest compliment to further say that I think she can still top it. I’m excited to see in two, three, four years’ time what new life experiences inform her next lyrics, what stylistic foundation she chooses, and how it will all fit together the way only she and the Machine can make it.