Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials
“The grass was so green against my new clothes / And I did cartwheels in your honour, dancing on tiptoes / My own secret ceremonials before the service began / In the graveyard, doing handstands” (‘Only If For A Night’)
Ceremonials doesn’t fuck about. With immodest glee, it parades its bold assurance, its shameless bravura, its dizzying sense of self-belief. It goes into the night, fearlessly. From opener ‘Only If For A Night’, with its dream-like remembrance of things past, a haunting tribute to deep loss and one can only imagine what else (“And my body was loosened, I almost saved your life / But you came over me like some holy wine…”), to the closing and devastating rumination on mortality that is ‘Leave My Body’ (“I'm gonna be released from behind these lies, I don't care whether I live or die / And I don't want you to leave me cold”), it’s an unyielding force of nature. Ceremonials is big on the big issues.
Pitching itself with eloquent but unremitting focus on the usual suspects (oh, you know - death, the collapse of love, self-hate, the long shadow of nature as an un-tameable dark force, the body as a cruel and vicious cage) it’s a tract whose gothic self-examination comes aflame via unsettling candour and unexpectedly accomplished wordplay. On 'Lover To Lover', redemption is a fleeting, long-lost notion: “There’s no salvation for me now, no space among the clouds / And I’ve seen that I’m heading down, but that’s alright…” Bubbling on the album’s funkiest moment, a soulful grove flecked with Motown keys, Florence is fooling no-one: this, in common with the rest of the album, is dark matter.
If second albums bring with them great challenges for the artist, pity the poor label, desperate for a repeat of the debut's sales and nudging their artist towards the US and meetings with 'name' producers. (She told them to go hang.) Released mid-2009, Florence + The Machine's Lungs arrived full of promise, its creator already a compelling performer and fostering hope that that her white witch posturings might just see her emerge as a Stevie Nicks for a new generation, a young artist who knew something about the alchemy required to smuggle devilment onto the radio and into a million or two homes. Ultimately, that debut aimed high, got there for the most part, hinted at glories to come. And we gobbled it up. Those of you with carefully calibrated measuring devices will scream for quick fix comparisons: “Is it as good as the first one?” Oh, gah! There’s a question best swerved. But it's hardly the longest shot to guess that, once again, people will get it, go with the Flo and ensure that Lungs' sales and crossover success were no accident or freakish quirk.
If that debut thrilled with its heady abandon, gave notice of a new girl in town (or, more accurately, the dark woods), but frustrated when the delicious approach became choked by the odd duffer, Ceremonials takes a tighter hold. There are, don’t worry, enough moments of sheer, fantastically wanton uproar to delight those who thrill more to the headstrong flight of ‘Dog Days Are Over’ than the brooding mass of ‘Blinding’. The odd diversion falls flat, for sure. When she sings “And the arms of the ocean are carrying me”, there’s confirmation of the continuing theme of our heroine at the mercy of elements, but boy, it apes Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Angel’. ‘Breaking Down’ sets off with that whole plinky-plonky, semi-tuneless, pounding Arcade Fire thing and deploys it a tad artlessly, if truth be told: its “I can see it coming from the edge of the room” hook is more Hammer House of Horror than MR James.
So, focus on the uproarious high spots. Both pre-release snippets are shimmying, skirt-swirling star dust. ‘What the Water Gave Me’, an overflowing casket of Class A euphoria is set for next season’s muddy fields. When it finally escapes gravitational pull, it does so with 70,000 revellers forgetting just how cold and wet they are. Just you see. ‘Shake It Up’ gets greedy with both moonlit reflection and perfect pop, one moment exhaling like Joni Mitchell (“Regrets collect like old friends…” – oh, too, too poignant by half), the next hammering the year’s sharpest hook through the clouds. High spots by any standards but possibly seen off by a staggering closing brace, the aforementioned ‘Leave My Body’ and the bristling whirligig neo-folk of ‘All This and Heaven Too’, where words roll out in a torrent as Florence sticks with the prevailing pattern “of prayers and proclamations” but holds back on the overriding self-flagellation. For once, one of the few times on this dark journey, light breaks through, words are damned for their heavy uselessness and in echoes of Keats, who knew a thing or two about this whole love and death malarkey ("Love is my religion and I could die for it"), she puts the ever-undefinable into elegant and unmistakable relief: "And it talks to me in tiptoes, and sings to me inside / It cries out in the darkest night, and breaks in morning light."
A nod, lest we forget, to The Machine, whose baroque arrangements lend their leader's wild furies focus and shape. The sound board is one of uniformity rather than desperate variation. Don’t expect to be nudged back to attention if you need a delicate piano ballad to flavour your foot-tapping guitar work-outs. Ceremonials is programmed smartly but you will need to work to navigate its subtly drawn profile. I confess - a single listen and “Mmm. Uh? Nah…” Half a dozen, a dozen maybe - more, perhaps - and you’re elevated and in flight. There is, oddly, something left-field accessible about this collection but as with the albums that truly pierce the sub-conscious, there are layers to uncover, themes to un-pick, work to put in.
Overall, Ceremonials stays true to that beautifully evocative title, works within the developing lexicon and iconography young Florence Welch is artfully spinning into her own wayward creation, her Florence. Trust in its unearthly gospels, its primal, tribal formulation and be guided by the voice – at times as soft as the breeze, but more often carrying the intent and weight of a thunderclap. On her knees in supplication, or exposed to the wild and the wind, arms aloft and exultant, she sings from somewhere deep within, a quasi-religious experience that verges on the elemental. She still, thank god, belongs to the hurricane.