With the opening bars of “High as Hope,” the latest album from English indie rock band Florence and the Machine, frontwoman Florence Welch sings, “The show is ending and I have started to cry.” It’s a fitting introduction to an album that sees the focus of Welch’s lyrics shift to focus on her struggles with fame, drugs and youth. However, the centerpiece to Welch’s thematic journey on the album is a brutally honest assessment of her own artistry; as she proclaims on the track Hunger, “I thought that love was on the stage, giving myself to strangers.” It’s a double edged sword for Welch, who –– albeit in a different way –– is giving us more of herself than ever before. With “High as Hope”, Welch turns inward to examine the relationship between art and artist, and the implications that relationship can have on all facets of her life. She’s done wearing a mask, done playing celebrity; the show is ending.
Make no mistake, however: “High as Hope” is by no means a stripped-back acoustic album. Welch is back with as much earth-shattering gravitas as ever, with each track structured like one long crescendo from a soft, pained croon to her signature heart-rending belt. Welch’s vocals allow this approach to work serviceably, although the formula does begin to feel familiar by the end of the record. Moreover, Welch struggles to find satisfying ways to finish her songs, with many just sort of…ending? It doesn’t necessarily diminish the experience, but one can’t help but feel slightly disappointed when the beginning and middle of her songs do so much to draw the listener in. Her struggles to stick the landing can feel like a sour note in an otherwise immersive experience.
Although the structural formula hasn’t changed much, other elements of the band’s work have reached exciting new heights. Welch’s lyricism, for one, shines through as a cornerstone of the album, offering evocative images of skyscrapers looming over her “like great unblinking giants”, as well as painfully honest confessions such as on the track “Grace,” where she describes ruining her younger sister’s 18th birthday party thanks to an acid-trip induced freakout. As the title of the album would suggest, Welch spends much of “High as Hope” ruminating over the inextricable ties between art, drugs and fame, as well as the highs (and lows) that all three bring. On the heartbreaking “Sky Full of Song,” Welch wishes for someone to save her from her own meteoric rise, begging, “Hold me down, I’m so tired now”, and then, “I thought I was flying, but maybe I’m dying tonight.”
Welch goes to great lengths to build a narrative across these tracks, attempting to reconcile the loneliness of youth, the shame of her past mistakes and being cannibalized by her own fame. Her exploration of these issues can feel like plunging into the deepest depths of sorrow, but it’s by no means a pointless exercise in anguish; although Welch builds her sorrows to nearly inconceivable heights, she never abandons hope. On the penultimate track, the rapturous “End of Love,” the album reaches its climax as it answers the question of whether or not Welch has any way out; the track is salvation put to music, and may just be the best music the she’s ever made. Self-harmonizing via multi-track recording, Welch sings several vocal parts that combine into layered, shifting harmonies that, in fitting with the track’s lyrics, wash over the listener like the flow of a river. For all of the album’s pain and exhaustion, it’s in these cathartic final moments where we see Welch allow herself to be forgiven, letting the tears flow and her past wash away.
While it’s not a perfect record, “High as Hope” makes the listener a part of her emotional journey, and that’s all you can really ask for from this kind of introspective album. She wears her past on her sleeve with such a rare honesty that it becomes impossible not to feel for her. “High as Hope” is a reflective album in every sense of the word, and it should serve as a type of irony that such obsessive self-examination has brought forth Welch’s most coherent ideological message to date: No matter how far gone we may seem, it’s never too late to start over.