Florence + the Machine’s ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ and the Frustrations of Tasteful Pop

In a recent interview with BBC Radio personality Zane Lowe, Florence Welch explained that her new producer set some ground rules when it came to making her third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, released last week. As part of an effort to introduce space and earthiness to Florence + the Machine’s “maximalist” aesthetic, Markus Dravs placed a pint glass that said, “Water to drink from, not write about” in the recording studio. In addition to banning Welch from singing about ponderous bodies of water, he stripped back the layers and layers of sweeping instrumentals in an attempt to highlight her songwriting. Welch’s initial reaction: “Where’s the crescendo and the fanfare?”

Listeners are forced to reckon with this question again and again throughout How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. It may be the most intimate of Welch’s three albums — in part because her words no longer have anywhere to hide — but it is also her weakest. Welch’s dramatic mysticism and the sorts of arrangements that make Arcade Fire sound stripped down in comparison are kept in check here. The result is an album that makes one wonder: where did 21st-century pop’s answer to Kate Bush go?

As Welch explained to Lowe, her collaboration with Dravs was very much a compromise. When she told him that big chorals and drums are kind of her thing, his response was, “Yeah, we can do that, but we’re gonna work with other stuff too” (namely, brass and understated electronic beats). Though his early engineering days, under Brian Eno’s tutelage, focused on electronic music, Dravs is known for helping arena rock bands like Arcade Fire, Coldplay, and Mumford & Sons venture into new territory. His influence is evident: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is Welch’s hardest rocking album to date. But if this is the direction she wants to move in, she needs to commit as hard as she did with orchestral grandeur on 2011’s Ceremonials. (The only track that harkens back to that era is How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful‘s strongest song and first single, “What Kind of Man,” which finds Florence leading a kiss-off to an ex-lover that’s so big, it makes U2 seem modest.) Otherwise, Welch is sure to remain in this middle ground, where her songs sound like a conscious effort to be someone else — or, worse, any singer at all.

This is certain death for a vocalist whose appeal is built around the fact that she’s musically over-the-top in a way that puts her far to the left of mainstream pop’s center. (She’s the resident witch, basically.) To see her aim for tasteful noir ballads like “Various Storms & Saints”… well, she might as well go as bland as OneRepublic. What makes Welch such a necessary force in pop is that she embraces the genre’s ridiculous heights, either with personality (see: her eclectic 2009 debut, Lungs) or theatricality (Ceremonials). How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is an exercise in restraint, and not the sparse kind that ends up being inadvertently interesting.

At its best, Welch’s dress-up sounds like album opener and single “Ship to Wreck,” a dead-on homage to The Cure mixed with her signature nautical pessimism. With the pitch-black soulfulness of “Long & Lost,” she channels Feist on her underrated 2011 album Metals — another album where one of baroque pop’s stars channeled her rock side. It’s not a bad direction for Welch should she be serious about transitioning to the rock sound that begins to take hold on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, but it doesn’t really hit its stride until closing track “Mother.” It is here that Welch gets her best shot at taking those bell sleeves out for a spin, crescendoing as wildly as she ever has before — this time in a new direction: bitter psychedelia. It wouldn’t make for a half-bad change if she had only been allowed to swing for the fences.