Ceremonials is the eagerly anticipated new album from Florence + The Machine, the follow-up to her acclaimed debut Lungs. We'll not spend a lot of time discussing the dreaded sophomore slump because this review isn't going to be a cliffhanger.
This is a layered album filled with contradictions and complexities in sound and lyric, separately, as well as the way music and lyrics complement and counteract one another and it is gorgeous. It is filled with words and sounds that are dark and romantic, inviting and forbidden, accessible and hidden. The songs can be soaring, anthemic, and dramatic and Welch's voice can be ferocious and expansive one minute and tiny and vulnerable the next.
"Shake It Off" opens with a few ambient, mournful organ chords and a tender, wounded vocal from Welch before exploding into a cathartic, soaring anthem filled with big beats, overdubbed vocal harmonies, and brilliant ecstasy. Welch sings of shaking off regrets but not forgetting entirely the mistakes of the past because history tends to repeat itself and sometimes muscle memory is the only way to get out of the next pitfall.
"Lover To Lover" feels like a companion to "Shake It Off" musically, opening with Florence singing over just piano chords and a beat kept by a handclap before growing into something larger while never attempting to capture the same anthemic fervor of "Shake." The lyrics are a puzzle as we wonder if she is conflicted or contradicting herself. She sings of moving from bed to bed and lover to lover, leading her to the conclusion she's heading down with no salvation in sight, yet she repeatedly says it's all right. Does she feel she has no hope of salvation or does she believe it's still out there but it's something she just can't see right now? Does she think salvation will elude her but she doesn't need it, or is she trying to convince herself it will be all right even though she doesn't believe it? Maybe.
"What The Water Gave Me" creates an atmosphere of mystery in music and vocal layering. It's not Gregorian chant but there is a droning, chant-like quality and for two minutes she appears to be slowly lifting the volume of the song for an explosion. Twice she brings us to the brink of climax and twice backs away. When she finally does release, it's a controlled burst rather than the massive wall of sound and energy of "Shake It Off."
Spiritual iconography, allusions to water, and escape are recurring concepts but not always via the direct route. "Seven Devils," for example, is a dark, alluring circular chorus of the damnned burning with intense, nightmarish imagery and a haunting piano melody and vocal. "All This And Heaven Too" is the price she's willing to pay for understanding, and the standard edition of the record ends with "Leave My Body," a song which references futures and pasts, leaving the body, reaching for higher ground and being pulled down.
The deluxe edition includes one of my favorite songs, "Strangeness And Charm," a explosive anthem I first heard when Florence + The Machine opened for U2. Fellow bonus track "Remain Nameless" is as spare as "Strangeness" is soaring. Both could easily have found room on the album proper and make the deluxe edition the only edition to buy.
What really makes this record special is Florence Welch's unbelievably powerful voice, it's natural beauty, and her instinctive control over it. Ceremonials feels like a step beyondLungs, sonically richer with beautiful and daring soundscapes and lyrics creating images that complement and expand the emotional range. Believe the hype. Florence + The Machine is one of the finest acts working today and we're only two brilliant albums into the journey.