Album Review: Florence and the Machine’s ‘High as Hope’ Is Beautifully Humanistic
Honesty is beautiful.
At 6 a.m. last Friday, I sent my local record store a direct message on Instagram, begging the owner to keep a copy of High as Hope on hold for me. The DM wouldn’t have made much of a difference either way; I made sure to get to the store five minutes after they’d opened, just to make sure I would definitely be the first one there to grab the album.
From the first instance I put it on my record player, High as Hope would turn out to be a completely different Florence and the Machine album than what I was used to. 2009’s Lungs had been audacious and cosmic. Listeners found themselves in mystically eerie stories told by harps, strings, bohemian drumbeats, and a voice that was ridiculously powerful. 2011’s Ceremonials was incredibly bold, but almost too overpowering and even obnoxious. In 2015 when How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful came out, it felt like Florence had officially found her place; transforming herself into characters such as Delilah and Persephone, she grooved through tracks like “Mother” and thrashed through songs like “What Kind of Man.” With “Queen of Peace,” it was like she’d casted herself in the ethereal aesthetic she was always made for. High as Hope, however, finds Florence facing a much more intimate display as she confides some of her worst truths to her listeners.
When the muted piano notes of “June” turn bolder, and Florence Welch’s voice is met with the backing of a soaring chorus, one thing will cross your mind: she’s back. “Hunger” is an anthem of empowerment, made up of brutally honest admittance on Florence’s part. “At 17 I started to starve myself,” turns to, “I thought that love was in the drugs/but the more I took/the more it took away and I could never get enough.” By simply and plainly talking about her eating disorder and past sobriety issues, she’s laying herself bare. There’s a lot of that raw honesty in tracks like “Grace,” written for her younger sister, where she apologizes for ruining her birthday while she was on MDMA and for being “such a fucking mess” during her childhood. “Patricia” finds her sending tribute to one of her own heroes, Patti Smith. Florence elegantly fangirls as she explains that Patti “has always been her north star.” “End of Love” is simply a beautiful song, and represents one of the hugest contradictions of High as Hope from her past albums; had this been a track off of 2016’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, for instance, we probably would’ve been met with bold orchestra and a stomping drumbeat. This time, it’s merely haunting strings and a bare piano, proving that Florence doesn’t necessarily need the elaborate backgrounds.
“South London Forever” is the standout track of the record, in my opinion. The lyrics are a wistful and regretful remembrance of her youth, spent at pubs in her hometown. “I forgot my name,” she admits, “and the way back to my mother’s house.” Her regret of being “drunk and stumbling” turns to the happy memories of “it doesn’t get better than this.” She eventually does a complete turn around, as she admits her longing for the normality of having a family. Florence’s rambling, sometimes unorganized inner truths all begin to collide and come together in this song; she regrets, she dreams, she worries, and she relishes in memory.
Florence Welch has been painted by her fan base and her album aesthetics as some sort of goddess of an artist (which isn’t far from the truth, if you’re as big of a Florence fan as I am.) We’ve all seen the Twitter memes of some pre-Raphaelite landscape painting, with a caption that goes something like, “This is probably where Florence Welch lives in between tours.” Her live performances aren’t much different; she twirls and skips across the stage in long, flowing dresses as the band (and the occasionally sprawling orchestra) behind her carries on.
With High as Hope, she’s embracing something less baroque and less celestial. She’s embracing the messy humanity of facing mistakes and turning it into something beautiful.
If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.