Amid the ecstasies of praise for her songwriting, one of the less generous comments made this year about Florence Welch, frontwoman of Florence and the Machine, was journalist Miranda Sawyer’s description of her as “big-boned.” It was a surprisingly revealing inaccuracy. Although in fact physically slight, Florence—with her pre-Raphaelite tumble of russet hair and strong jaw—is a dramatic beauty given an illusory voluptuousness by the gossamer folds of her stage costumes. She has a powerful voice (a chorister’s range perverted by gothic cadences) and a feverish stage presence, dangling from lighting rigs and intermittently launching herself into the audience at her shows. She might be svelte, but in her music Florence certainly gives a full-bodied performance.
The opening number of the band’s Lungs, “Dog Days Are Over,” begins yearningly: Harp strings gently buffet Florence’s fluttery vocals as she describes how “happiness hit her like a train on a track/Coming towards her, stuck still, no turning back” before a swell of drum beats and handclaps lift the song to its exultant chorus. Florence urgently proclaims, “Leave all your love and your longing behind/You can’t carry it with you if you want to survive,” and for an exquisite moment it feels as though any heartbreak could be so easily surmounted. Inevitably, the momentum of the album slows after the impassioned rush of such an opener, but it remains a compellingly eccentric work. “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up),” for instance, is a swirling coloratura about ritual sacrifice, and when Florence, her voice somewhere between terror and junked-up rapture, sings, “This is a gift, it comes with a price/Who is the lamb and who is the knife?,” she gives the scenario a frightening beauty.
Despite the album’s morbid overtones (“Girl with One Eye” reaches a new extreme in schoolgirl viciousness) Florence and the Machine is a less somber outfit than Bat for Lashes, with whom Florence is frequently compared. If Bat’s Natasha Khan prefers to go on a spooky midnight ramble to decide a boyfriend’s fate, Florence is more apt to sock him one: “Kiss with a Fist” is a wildly impolitic ditty about mutual domestic violence (“A kick in the teeth is good for some/A kiss with a fist is better than none”). It doesn’t quite work. Although there’s something slightly churlish in unfavorably comparing a finished song with its demo, “Kiss” worked considerably better in draft form, the roughness which made it seem like gutsy slapstick, rather than simple provocation, somewhat lost in the finessed album version.
Florence’s music is particularly sensitive to studio gloss; her singing is a fine balance between elegance and frenzy. Indeed, with a voice that is both soaring and ragged, Florence is perhaps offering tribute to her respiratory system in the album’s title. But if her lungs let her hold those high notes (or even better, as on “Between Two Lungs,” enable a first intimate moment between two lovers), Florence’s body also rankles in its ability to betray her feelings. On the fittingly titled “Drumming Song,” Florence’s pounding head and heart in the presence of an ex reaches an audible volume, the dissonance amplifying until it becomes her puppeteer: “I swallow the sound and it swallows me whole.” While she can command her swooping vocals, her body rebels, wracked by fear, grief, and desire. She is made bestial by a relationship’s decay in “Howl,” her transformation a lycanthropic fantasy possibly too overtly sensual and bloodthirsty to find favor with Stephenie Meyer devotees, not least when she promises to “drag my teeth across your chest to taste your beating heart.” Only when she gets utterly soused on “Hurricane Drunk” does the free-fall from control seem pleasurable. Catching sight of her lover with another girl, she’s now sufficiently unmoored from her feelings to be wry about her heartache: “I brace myself, ‘cause I know it’s gonna hurt/But I like to think at least things can’t get any worse.”
Appropriately for a collection of songs where uncontrollable emotion develops into a kind of dyspraxia, the album stumbles in places. However earnest the attempt, Candi Staton’s ‘You Got the Love’ surely doesn’t need any more reinterpretations, even if Florence cutely reintroduces good grammar into the title by changing “You” to “You’ve.” As that small gesture implies, Florence is still punctilious even when life beats her down; when it raises her up, she is magical.