Writing about music has always been wrapped up in the same language other people use to talk about the divine for me. I feel closer to some sort of central energy force when I’m standing at a concert with the floor vibrating below my feet than I do in any church or during any conversation about God. Nothing makes me feel like any sort of higher-plane communication is possible more than laying flat on my back with my hands crossed over my stomach and my eyes closed and headphones over my ears. There are albums that make me play at devout; sitting silent and steady somewhere, music turned up so loud that it’s almost overwhelming, letting it wash over me. Letting it absolve.
There is something here that does that for me. Maybe it’s because it seems like Florence Welch herself best knows how to write music when she’s using the language of the divine (saints are called out by individual name and by pluralized concept, we hear about crucifixes in the same breath as the Hollywood sign, “Mother” pleads with a lord figure and talks about heaven and talks about kneeling all in one pretty gospel-inflected package), but every time I open my mouth to talk about How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, I feel like I might choke on my tears. It’s why this review is a week late, actually. I couldn’t figure out how to put that sort of emotion, that much emotion, into words.
There is expansiveness at work on this album that feels almost overwhelming, although when you compare it to the non-stop witchery and heavy doses of harp on Ceremonials (an album I love, don’t get me wrong), there’s something nearing subtlety in a song like “Various Storms & Saints,” which starts slow and almost bare and steadily builds in arrangement, volume, and anger. What I mean about HBHBHB is that it doesn’t feel as fragile as Ceremonials, partially because Flo’s powerhouse vocals aren’t the only source of strength sonically here. There are swells of string and thunderous horn sections; the general feeling here is not a dew-flecked spiderweb in the light of a full moon like Ceremonials or even Lungs, but a lush, crowded garden in the noon sun, on its way to a little too hot and a little too much but god don’t the roses smell good this time of year? Even the softer songs, the slow-builders like “Long & Lost,” have an attitude to them, an almost bluesy swagger as the foundation, beneath all their bare vulnerability. The instrumental arrangements are as strong and as vital as her vocals and it’s an album standing securely, solidly, on two feet as a result.
At its most base level, the album is an exercise in catharsis. Not just despair, although there are certainly songs that could break your heart they are so sorrowful (like “Long & Lost, which I mentioned above, a song that includes the line “Are you missing me? Is it too late to come on home?”, or “Queen of Peace” asking “What is it worth when all that’s left is hurt?”). There’s also the bright burn of anger here, like Flo decided the best way to handle it was to contain and let it burn wild until there were only embers left behind. I talked about this a little when I talked about “Delilah,” about how the lead tracks seemed to have an almost righteous fury to them that stands out from previous efforts. It’s part of why this album resonates with me in a way the first two don’t; I understand anger. I understand “make up your mind, before I make it up for you / the executioner is within me / and he comes blindfold ready, sword in hand.” I get needing to scream until you can’t catch your breath to keep screaming because having it bottled up deep in your gut isn’t an option anymore.
But—and here is the vital thing, the thing that makes it an album about absolution and the cleansing power of fire, of fury, rather than the wrath of a woman scorned—through that all there is hope. There are the first tentative steps to piecing yourself back together on the other side of leveling everything you knew because there was something broken and rotten at the foundation. Look at “Third Eye” (you don’t have to be a ghost, here amongst the living; you are flesh and blood / you deserve to be loved). Look at “St. Jude” (and I’m learning, so I’m leaving). Look at “Delilah” (I’m gonna be free and I’m gonna be fine). This is Florence as phoenix, rising from the ashes, newborn and vulnerable but renewed and washed clean by the flames.
When you get down to it, I haven’t been able to listen to anything else, even though I’ve had to reapply my eyeliner three times right before work since the album was released. I’m devoted. (And, for what it’s worth, my absolute favorite song on the album is “Which Witch,” even though it only appears on the deluxe version. For a particularly cathartic combination, I recommend “Various Storms & Saints” followed by “Make Up Your Mind” followed by “Which Witch.”)