‘Hope’ and change from Florence + the Machine
It’s hard to mistake Florence Welch’s voice for anyone else’s. Play any record she’s made with her band the Machine, and her electrifying timbre is the first thing you’ll notice. Add her ear for melody and a knack for inescapable hooks, and it’s easy to see why her music has had such staying power since the band’s 2009 debut.
After a four-year hiatus between studio albums, Welch and company came roaring back with 2015’s “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” a searing record that became their first No. 1 on the Billboard 200. “High As Hope,” which releases Friday, arrives after a shorter break, but Welch nonetheless has experienced considerable change since that last album: She turned 30 in 2016 and she’s officially sober. She’s been baring her soul for a living for more than a decade now, and it’s an older and wiser Welch who gives the these 10 tracks their emotional core.
As expected, Welch’s vocals are top-notch throughout, giving the mostly mid-tempo album the kinetic energy it needs to not feel too sluggish. From the way she creaks and groans on the brooding “Big God” to the angelic harmonies on “Sky Full of Song,” she exudes a level of personality and skill that transcend vocal runs and high notes — though she’s very good at those, too.
While her songs have always come from a personal place, Welch displays a lyrical fearlessness wrought from life experience. “At 17 I started to starve myself,” she sings with both vulnerability and confidence on the confessional “Hunger,” in reference to her very real eating disorder. On “The End of Love,” she openly contemplates her grandmother’s suicide (“I threw myself on the balcony/Like my grandmother so many years before me”), while “Grace” is a personal apology (“You were the one I treated the worst/Only because you loved me the most”).
The songs on “High as Hope” don’t have as much youthful urgency of past anthems, but Welch’s thoughtful words and the raw power of her melodies keep the songs compelling. The lush production by Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey) and Welch herself (her first production credit) bolster each song with sweeping atmosphere, and Kamasi Washington’s horn arrangements match Welch’s vigor on the gospel-tinged “100 Years” and the nostalgic “South London Forever.” But even with the massive instrumentation, it’s clear that Florence is the engine of this Machine.