The Lowdown: In an age where the majority of rock music that gets played on the airwaves and blasts from the headlining slots at music festivals comes from artists whose biggest hits were over 20 years ago, Florence Welch stands as a welcome anomaly. In the nine years since the first Florence + The Machine album was released, Welch has taken massive strides to the top alongside her massive voice and entrancing stage presence, both of which worked to elevate familiar power ballads. As one of the last rock stars who can rightfully be called a star, Welch writes the kind of songs to fill a packed field, tasked with making a connection with each of the thousands watching her. On High as Hope, her fourth album, she draws inward to put more of herself on wax, delving into her personal history to try and tap into a universal feeling.
The Good: Throughout High as Hope, Welch examines the past through a wistful yet sympathetic lens. Whether looking back at her adventures as a teenager in South London or writing a love song to her sister full of apologies, she captures the overblown emotion of being a teenager from a remove, a gray-toned nostalgia where the distance is the point. Whereas she can often come across as stilted, moments like “Hunger” let loose and truly soar, Welch belting out sugary hooks with the kind of reckless excitement you feel singing alone in your bedroom to your favorite song. Focused on personal reflection, High as Hope is equally framed by stark production that breathes life into certain moments like “Big God”, where she saunters through Jamie xx’s synths and Kamasi Washington’s horn arrangements,to craft a hymn in technicolor blown out to maximum effect.
The Bad: As distinct as a single like “Big God” is, too often Welch hews closely towards a more traditional approach. “Sky Full of Song” finds Welch soaring through verses that flow with a pronounced rhythm, only to delve into another swooning chorus, fine but nothing markedly different from any of the stellar dramatic ballads in her oeuvre, which can be said for songs like “Patricia” or “End of Love” as well. Moments that should crackle with energy, like the post apocalyptic fervor of “100 Years”, bristling with imagery of streets running with blood amid a revolution, fall limp behind a muddled arrangement that even Washington’s horns can’t overcome. What should spark instead sputters to a finish.
The Verdict: High as Hope is a marvel when Welch pushes past the boundaries both within herself and in the familiar structure of songs, but falters when stagnating inside those constraints. On songs like “No Choir”, “Big God”, and “June”, she subverts expectations and displays range so that it’s more meaningful when she hits the high note. High as Hope is a bold move for an artist at Welch’s stage, one where the risks pay off, proving that she shouldn’t be afraid of taking more.
Essential Tracks: “Hunger”, “Big God”, and “Grace”