Florence Welch’s voice is an undeniable weapon.
It brought concertgoers goers to a halt in 2010 at Southern California’s Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. Welch and her band, Florence & the Machine, were stationed at an outpost—a relatively small tent safely tucked away from the two outdoor mainstages. With a mid-afternoon slot, it would have been easy to walk right on by. But Welch shouted, and onlookers stopped.
Hers is a tone that is equally strong and delicate—a versatile instrument that can grind out a soul cover and minutes later force journalists to use clichéd words like “ethereal,” simply because there’s few other ways to describe a voice than can seem to dance over a harp’s fragile tones. Once television-viewing audiences got wind of this dynamo singer, they responded in kind. After an appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards in the fall of 2010, Welch’s 2009 debut, Lungs, suddenly took off and earned Florence & the Machine a Best New Artist nod at the Grammy Awards.
So it’s a strange, head-scratching thing that Ceremonials opens with a song in “Only If a Night” that goes all of 60 seconds before completely neutralizing Welch’s greatest strength. It starts slow and brooding enough, with a smattering of piano notes, deep bass tones, and dreamy harpsichords. Then comes the church choirs. This in itself wouldn’t be immediately offensive, as Welch is singing of doing handstands in a cemetery, after all. But with the choirs come an anchor’s thud of over-production. Strings? Yep. Giant, hip-hop-like beats? Check? A midtempo piano for Welch to go all Alicia Keys? That’s here, too. This doesn’t appear to be the result of some evil major-label overload now demanding a “hit,” as Ceremonials, like Lungs, is produced by Paul Epworth. Unlike Lungs, however, this record feels more like an exercise in production than an expression of artistry.
OK, fine, that’s one track. Next up is the first single, “Shake It Out.” Sadly, this isn’t a song as so much as a piece of music built for gargantuan set-pieces. One can practically see the close-up on Welch as the veins in her neck quiver. And no doubt she’ll look striking in what will surely be an angelic, glitter-filled costume. Yet, as on “Only If a Night,” Welch is soon joined by what sounds like all of London’s entire cadre of backing vocalists. One may as well pile on the window dressing and create a diversion, however, as all the Queen’s singers and even the most trained philharmonic couldn’t add a sense of drama to nonsense lyrics like “damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” Sigh.
It carries on for 12 tracks, much like this. Sure, there are nice atmospheric touches here and there. The tribal drumming of “Heartlines” promises good things to come, as do the scrapes and clacks of “All This and Heaven To.” Likewise, “Breaking Down,”on which Welch sticks close to some steadily building orchestral strikes. But these are cursory nods to experimentation. Melodies are sacrificed for choruses loud enough to be shouted from the Vatican, and Welch can’t go more than 40 seconds without someone thinking she needs layer upon layer of vocals. Even Welch’s trademark harp is denigrated by the studio gloss. It sounds so heavily processed, it feels ripped from a Radio Disney album.
The great crime here is that Welch has a personality that demands attention. Lungs is an expansive record full of possibilities, with hints of Gothic blues and rock n’ soul fierceness. It has its share of celestial touches as well, but there’s plenty of theatrics to be pulled from songs that grapple with faith. PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, for instance, have catalogs that prove it. It isn’t until the album’s final moments that Welch seems to seize the potential at which her debut hints. “Don’t need a husband, don’t need no wife,” she sings through gritted teeth on the album-closing “Leave My Body.” The verses are striking in their simplicity, and she sounds angry enough that the gospel choir keeps its distance. It’s the rare moment on Ceremonials where the song is placed ahead of the spectacle. —Todd Martens