Album Review: Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

It’s pretty safe to say that Florence Welch has an absolute killer voice, a claim which has echoed around the music world for a good number of years now. For those who are unaware – Florence Welch has an absolute killer voice. Her instantly recognizable vocal tone, which tends to soar majestically, has made her a household name in the last few years. Following a four year absence, Welch and her band – Florence + the Machine – are now back with the hotly anticipated How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Read on for a full album review. 

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful opens with the upbeat single Ship to Wreck, a track whose opening line already says enough about Welch’s (positive) mental state this time round. “Don’t touch the sleeping pills, they mess with my head” she sings calmly ahead of a chorus which sees her wailing voice soar euphorically over a mixture of acoustic guitars, pulsating bass and a sweet xylophone melody. “Don’t let the curtain catch you, because you’ve been here before” she claims during the second verse, with the rest of the song following a similar structure before leading into a brooding, grandiose mid-section. What Kind of Man follows in demure fashion as a dark organ underpins Welch’s haunting, effects-laden vocal tone. A harp enters the frame alongside guitars and chanted vocals, all of which kick the song into full force. This is where Welch’s voice breaks out of its cage, with emphatic brass accompanying her during the chorus. “What kind of man loves like this?” asks Welch, her vocals so grandiose that they beg for 20,000 voices to sing it back even louder. The title track follows, referencing religion and Hollywood in its lyrical content. “Every skyline was like a kiss on the lips” sings Welch during the first verse, before subtle brass accompany her as she sings, “how big, how blue, how beautiful” in a calmer tone. This is the cue for further instrumentation to join the party, in particular a string section, woodwind instruments and added brass. Three tracks in and Florence is already utilizing a full orchestra on her comeback album, although you wouldn’t expect anything less from an artist whose music screams grandiosity. As the track slowly comes to what seems like an end, the orchestra carries on in what ends up being the most glorious sounding moment on the record. It may be early on, but everything is already coming together in beautiful fashion. These are the kind of musical moments for which an artist will always be known. Queen of Peace’s opening brass and string salvo keep up the glorious trend as they make way for a pulsating bassline and handclap drums. It’s no slowing down for Welch, with Queen of Peace treading on darker ground during the verses. Its chorus is, as per usual, massive, yet this is now something we’ve come to expect from Welch and co.

Various Storms & Saints’ opening guitar line is subdued and mellow, accompanying Welch’s vocals as a lone synth line enters the frame. “I am teaching myself how to be free” she sings during the first verse, making way for a gradual build in intensity which only just erupts around thirty seconds before the end. It’s one of the weaker tracks on the record, focussing more on a gradual and steady progression than the previously heard “in-your-face” grandiosity. Delilah follows, encompassing a piano during the intro which eventually precedes a lone tribal beat. The piano becomes more grandiose later on, accompanying a falsetto vocal from Welch which is in turn underpinned by subdued organs. The track picks up pace over its course, with another reference to pills passing by on the way in a similar vein to Ship to Wreck’s opening lyric. Long & Lost subsequently enters ballad territory, Welch singing alongside a downbeat combination of piano, guitar and electronic drums. She provides her own backing vocals during the verse, wailing quietly in the background in a Gaelic-chant style. The track fizzles along quietly for the most part, shying away from a possible crescendo moment towards the end and instead opting for an emphasis on the electronic drums and guitar combo. A jazzier tone enters the field of play on Caught, with an accordion appearing during the verse alongside mid-paced guitars and pianos. “And I’m caught” wails Welch during the verse, continuing, “I can’t keep calm I can’t keep still” later on. It’s slightly weaker than other tracks on the record, not really living up to the potential it could’ve filled towards the end.

As the record approaches an end, Third Eye presents itself as definite hit material with sing-a-long wails, handclap beats and a huge chorus. The brass adds an extra kick towards the mid-point, yet the best thing about Third Eye remains its chorus, infectiously catchy to the point that you think you’ve heard it millions of times before. The mid-section sees Welch’s vocals border on falsetto territory in and amongst swathes of jazz piano and tribal drums. “I’m the same, I’m trying to change” she sings, building up intensity over the course of the breakdown. Penultimate track St Jude is all about synths and electronic drums, remaining downbeat and subdued for its whole running time. Its instrumentation is thoughtful and sparse, yet it still poses itself as one of the weaker tracks on the record, something which is simply down to its lack of power or punch. The album closes on Mother, its fuzzy guitars, danceable background rhythm and synth bleeps all intertwining during the intro. “Oh lord won’t you leave me, leave me just like this” asks Welch during the first verse, before an infectiously funky bassline enters the frame. The chorus is dramatically grandiose, perfectly helping the record come to a massive ending. As the track progresses more instruments are added to the field of play, eventually all battling it out during an absolutely enormous outro. However, it’s Welch’s soaring voice which overrides everything with effortless ease, bringing How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful to a memorable close.

Despite falling off track around the middle, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a strong record which has truly cemented Florence Welch’s reputation as one of the best vocalists in modern music. The record is filled to the brim with soaring vocals, instrumental crescendos and orchestral magic, (nearly) making for a truly encapsulating listen from start to finish. Welcome back, Flo.


How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is out now through Island Records.