Florence + the Machine, ‘How Big How Blue How Beautiful’
Florence Welch rocketed to prominence and festival-headliner status because of her penchant for the grandiose. Her band’s biggest hits, like the swelling “Dog Days Are Over” and the determined “Shake It Off” were full of sweeping gestures and replete with poetic imagery. But on Florence + the Machine’s third album, “How Big How Blue How Beautiful,” the British singer is scaling back a bit, with more intimate acoustics and lyrics focused on retrenching in the wake of a failed relationship.
Which isn’t to say that “Blue” is a small record. For Florence + the Machine, getting smaller means shrinking just so — think theater-size, instead of suited to arenas. The music is less wide-eyed than the band’s two previous albums, bringing to mind the ornate songs by those moody yet playful acts who were just weird enough to be classified as “alternative” back when radio gatekeepers let multiple female-fronted bands sneak onto their playlists.
But experience hasn’t drawn Welch entirely inward: Tracks like the brass-assisted “Queen of Peace” and the storming “Third Eye” possess the clamorous crowd-pleaser choruses that helped make “Dog Days” indelible. Welch has said in interviews that “Blue” producer Markus Dravs (who’s also worked with Björk and Arcade Fire) forbade her from returning to the well of water-based metaphor this time around, although the album does open with “Ship to Wreck,” a withering look back at bad love that updates the glittering pop-rock crossover of ’80s Fleetwood Mac so that it can fit Welch’s mighty alto.
That voice is still the key gear in Welch’s musical machine — muscular without sounding strident, able to leap tall octaves in a single bound, it would be one of modern rock’s most distinctive even if there were more women populating the genre’s upper echelons. On “Blue,” it also drops to a whisper on the frustrated “St. Jude,” a mournful prayer about romantic tumult. (The title refers to both the patron saint of lost causes and a 2013 windstorm that struck Europe on his feast day.)
On the downtempo “Caught,” Welch sings of nightmares as if they’re monsters living inside lullabies: “The dream of you, it sleeps too / but it never slips away / it gains its strength and digs its hooks / to drag me through the day,” she coos before the song shifts into high gear. And “How Big, How Blue” splits the difference between the closely shared and the grand, with its sighing chorus providing just enough tension for the horn blasts that jolt the track back to its verses’ rueful remembrances and, eventually, steer the song to its close.
“How Big How Blue How Beautiful” is a record about maneuvering around and through matters of the heart — sometimes triumphant, sometimes sad, and always deeply felt thanks to Welch acting as tour guide. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “How Big, How Blue”
Florence + the Machine perform at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on June 10.