Florence + the ‘Ceremonials’

Courtesy of Island Records

Those who were following and eagerly anticipating the Oct. 31 release of Florence and the Machine’s sophomore album, “Ceremonials,” surely heard all the buzzwords. Big, grandiose, baroque and dramatic were some, but reducing this album down to a more produced version of “Lungs” overlooks everything this album is about.

Every album embodies the environment and spirit in which it was produced. “Lungs,” Florence Welch’s acclaimed 2009 debut, was recorded over a few years with multiple producers. As a result, the album was described as “all over the place,” by many, including Welch herself. But it was precisely this quality, on top of her fantastic vocals, that led to the album’s meteoric rise in popularity. When it came time to record “Ceremonials,” Welch had firm intentions to create an album with a cohesive vision and record in one place.

The opening track, “Only If for a Night,” hurls listeners straight into a vast soundscape. A piano plays a descending scale. A second opens up with large, yet distant chords and Welch comes in with vocals. “Only If for a Night” tells a dream-tale of an encounter with a ghost that comes over her, like “some holy life.”

The next two tracks progress like sequels of the first. “Shake It Out” opens with Welch’s vocals over a solitary accordion. She sings about a haunted past, with regrets personified as ghouls and flesh-seeking demons. “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” she sings at the end of the second verse, ushering in rolling drumbeats that lift the song like the foamy crest of a breaking wave. In fact, the whole track is filled with the ebb and flow pattern of waves that wash over the listener time and again.

“What the Water Gave Me,” features muted, echoing percussion, as well as a guitar that feels like moonlight shining on a river. After the struggle for peace narrated in “Shake It Out,” this track is a tale of acceptance of fate that manages to remain ambiguous, with clear references to Virginia Woolf’s suicide.

There was always a risk that with the bigger sound this album promised would come a descent into flabby pop vapidity, over-produced and lacking character, but “Ceremonials” manages to blend big record label pop stylings into a clear sonic and lyrical progression from her first album. Tracks like “Spectrum,” which features Welch singing, “Say my name,” like 1,000 Beyoncés, or “Lover to Lover,” in which Welch basks in the ecstasy of ’60s soul, showcase a near perfect balance of Florence and The Machine’s unique artistic vision with the seductive offerings of a big budget, hi-fi studio production.

Some listeners may pan “Ceremonials” for being too long, too baroque and too ambitious. With the regular version clocking in at almost one hour and the deluxe version at almost 90 minutes, the album is admittedly a little tedious. It is difficult to throw on a pair of headphones and listen to this album in one sitting, simply because it is so long, and once it is finished, the album is still hard to take in. However, perhaps that’s not what “Ceremonials” is about. There is a ritual aspect woven tightly into the music and lyrics, a deep effort to get rid of the past.

“Holy water cannot help you now / See I’ve had to burn your kingdom down / And no rivers and no lakes can put the fire out / I’m gonna raise the stakes, I’m gonna smoke you out,” Welch sings on the track “Seven Devils.” “Seven devils all around you / Seven devils in my house / See they were there when I woke up this morning / I’ll be dead before the day is done.”

After listening to the demo of “What the Water Gave Me,” which rounds out the deluxe edition, the album’s purpose becomes as clear as the sunlight after a storm (excuse the cliché). The track features light electronic-based instrumentation that beautifully highlights Welch’s voice. Just as this track is transformed from a simple allusion to Virginia Woolf’s suicide into a twisted and beautiful image of relief washing over the narrator, “Ceremonials” transforms in her capable hands from a long, ambitious album into religious experience that washes over listeners, clear and cool as running water. “Ceremonials” is quite a ceremony indeed.

Rating: 4 out of 5