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The moment before the sunrise is a peaceful time, the sky is still a deep shade of blue, birds have only begun to sing and on the horizon you can see the beginnings of the day - warm and beckoning below the plane. Once the sun does rise, it’s massive. Beams of light unfurl into the world and the Earth takes a fresh breath of air in the new day. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Florence and the Machine’s third LP sounds like a sunrise in its best moments – grandiose, natural, bright and beautiful. It’s an album that is not large for the sake of dramatics, but instead it’s power and thunderous peaks come naturally, rising slowly into the great blue sky.
Much like the sunrise, Florence Welch doesn’t start off with a bang. Opening track, “Ship to Wreck” doesn’t ever grow to a peak, instead staying relative basic throughout but giving the listener a reminder of Welch’s phenomenal voice. It’s the next track, “What Kind of Man” that shows the power behind Florence and the Machine. The “Machine” provides appropriate swells and peaks under Welch, who shows incredible range as she contemplates the actions of a lover. Yet it’s the title track that truly welcomes the listener into the world that Welch and Co. have created here. Beginning from a moment of near silence midway through the piece, an array of orchestral sounds emerge from the corners of the song. The noise here is giant with triumphant horns mixing beautifully with wistful woodwinds and powerful strings. It’s as full a sound as Florence and the Machine have ever produced on record; glorious and confidant as the sky it envisions.
The album art perfectly captures the intent of this album and all the sides of Smith. In the corner of all his singles and releases is a white rectangle featured on the bottom left over a solid pastel color. The rectangle is a callback to his work in the xx as one of the 4 original members, representing one of the 4 sides to an X. The rainbow of colors featured on In Colour’s art are a callback to all the pastel colors featured on early releases. The entire concept lets us know that this work is a culmination of everything he has done so far. Like Smiths music its is successful at being both subtle and bombastic. The powerful trend continues with the excellent “Queen of Peace,” which uses the same horns as the title track. “Various Storms and Saints” provides the listener with a much-needed chance to catch their breath, stripping away most of the instruments and replacing them with a ghostly chorus to back Welch as she wistfully speaks to a past lover.
Thematically, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a step back from 2011’s Ceremonials, which was drenched head to toe with death and despair. Now Welch appears much more human and emotional; many of the songs on this album are centered more on life, living and love than mortality. Welch is relatable here, more than ever; which is a nice change of pace for someone who was so fixated by death. Songs here are given much more room to breathe in comparison to Ceremonials. The last album was powerful and full, but still cluttered and without a moment of rest. How Big is much more calculated and thought out than its predecessor, with its peaks coming one by one, rather than in an uneven frenzy.
The album does lose some of its momentum midway through though, with the latter half being boring and forgettable amongst its counterparts. The lack of intensity and passion make the second half seem like filler with “Long & Lost” being especially guilty, with plain instrumentation accompanying a singer who sounds uninspired. Clocking in at only three minutes, it’s shocking that the track was left in, as it absolutely kills the momentum brought on by the songs before it. Fortunately, the finale of the album, “Mother,” brings in a kickin’ guitar that was missing for much of the album. Intertwined with Welch’s returning fiery passion, it adds some much needed flavor to the back half of the album.
Another album highlight is the track "Seesaw", which some recognize the much talked about collaboration with Four-Tet. Both artists have similar sounds and production techniques so their paring makes a perfect fit. The track has been updated since its initial inception and vocals from Romy Croft have been added in and are a cherry atop an already delicious song. As mentioned above, the feature from Young Thug and Popcaan show up on the track "I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)". Smith shows his range as a producer and the strengths of the genres he is working with the results are shockingly good. Young Thug is known for his outrageous sound effects and Smith does a wonderful job of manipulating thugs mannerisms and weaving them right into the soul of the track. More outrageous is the lyrical content when Thug exclaims “Imma ride in that pussy like a stroller”. Every verse is more flamboyant and splashy than the one before.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is undoubtedly a step forward for Florence and the Machine. It’s removed the clutter from Ceremonials and replaced it with a booming elegance, while matching the scope of the instrumentation with the deeply intimate and human nature of Welch’s lyrics. Unfortunately, poor pacing and lack of passion in the latter half of the album stop How Big, How Blue How Beautiful from being Florence and the Machine’s masterwork; but the album is still a sight to behold at it’s peaks, much like a towering mountain, the brilliance of the sky or the warm glow of a sunrise.