It is important for artists to maintain a healthy perspective on what it means to be successful. It is most commonly used as a reductive term in a vain attempt to quantify an artist’s level of achievement in their career. At its worst it can be used as a shield, a defence against a lack of accomplishment elsewhere.
Florence Welch has identified success as what it truly is, a threat to creativity. You can be a notable artist, but that does not necessarily mean you have a successful relationship with yourself, she says. This distinction is important because without it, an artist could be separated from their most important inspirational resource. Themselves.
What makes ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ so captivating is its honesty and its uncompromising approach to the real world, where “success” cannot gloss over the unvarnished truth that can come from personal trials and tribulations. Ship To Wreck, for example, sees Florence asking herself “Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch? Did I build this ship to wreck?”. Clearly, there are no half-measures of self expression here.
It is unlikely that Florence will ever strip away some of the grandiose features of her style but there is a sense on this record that her voice and lyrics are carrying more weight than before. The large wall of sound that she is known for is still evident but rather than exist on the same level, she steps out ahead of it. After a mellow intro to What Kind of Man, the guitar and percussion start hitting hard, but it is Florence’s vocal follow up that hits hardest. “To let me dangle at a cruel angle/Oh my feet don’t touch the floor/Sometimes you’re half in and then you’re half out/But never close the door”, she sings ferociously. There is real passion here. Let’s put it this way. You don’t want to be the man she is referring to.
This energy is channelled differently elsewhere on the record. Long and Lost is a beautifully haunting display of emotional vulnerability while Various Storms and Saints sees a magnificent vocal journey from something not entirely unlike the gentle, serene quality of Enya to a blistering vocal crescendo that comes from a heart she is trying to protect.
It is difficult to speculate on how much of the record is autobiographical. There is enough first-person narrative that suggests that much of it is. This, however, is almost an immaterial fact of little relevance. What is important is that the listener believes it is, such is the power of Florence’s performance on this record.
Not only does Florence have a gift for meaningful lyrics and beautiful melodies, she also has at her core a very pure and honest artistic temperament. It seems her immunity to the mirage of success has allowed her to remain focused. Florence appears to have been able to keep the creative fire burning and channel it into an exceptional third studio album.