I first heard “Ship to Wreck” driving home from work on one of those out-of-the-blue sizzling May afternoons. (Michigan weather, you keep any sense of normalcy in check. For that, I thank you, I hate you, I love you.) My caffeine buzz was long gone as I collapsed into the car around 4 p.m., unleashing my pony tail and rolling the windows down all the way so as to pump my stomach free of the day’s air-conditioning overdose. Hey, we do what we have to.

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

B-
Florence + the Machine
Island Records


To hear Florence at this point in time was nothing less than fitting — a gift, actually, bestowed upon me by the almighty radio out of pity, necessity and graciousness. You see, Ms. Florence Welch doesn’t just come on the radio. She yawps, belches, even wails through your speakers with that great throaty voice that somehow reflects every bit of longing, heartbreak and ecstasy you’ve ever felt. Even at the lowest volume, “Ship to Wreck” is a characteristically epic, blossoming tune. And it was perfect to hear it after a long day, cruising down 8 Mile, wind in my hair. There was something very Perks-of-Being-a-Wallflower-y about it all.

So when How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful came out, I expected that aura of sad-happy infinity to percolate. A beautiful record, to be sure, Florence + the Machine’s third installment in its already impressive legacy is a bit pop-y, a lot devastating and often monotonous. We can’t forget how Florence burst onto the scene in 2009 with Lungs, a graceful, harp-laced debut, and then followed it up with 2011’s hauntingly essential Ceremonials. But How^3 ditches the one-word title pattern (and, unfortunately, much inventive energy) and amps up the melancholy — sometimes in the band’s favor, sometimes not.

This is, first and foremost, a break-up album. Every good one has a standout song. For Flo and the gang it’s “What Kind of Man,” an ethereal-meets-angry build-up melody that brings on the soul. It starts out easy until Welch stomps to the top of her royal soapbox (reserved for ginger goddesses only) to preach to her man about all his emotional wrongdoing. What kind of listener could resist this delicious British disdain?

Welch tries happiness on for size with “Delilah” and “Third Eye.” The latter is a refreshingly stripped number that has her handsomely chanting, “Hey look up! You don’t have to be a ghost here amongst the living!” (Thanks, Flo!) “Delilah” works just as well, with a catchy, interesting intro and one raw drum in the background. Joy suits Brits, too.

The album’s title track, though, sets the tone to snooze, and it’s hard for even the most seasoned artists to puncture that miasma of tiredness. “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” and “Queen of Peace” find Welch reveling in typical “Florence” territory — melodies that rest on her lovely voice, a comfortable, often-visited key and tiringly depressed lyrics. This is the band’s main issue. All of that is pretty, but after two and a half albums of it, it’s nothing special anymore. Bring back the harps or the weird lyrics about sacrifice (see: “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”) or anything fresh, for that matter. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is in desperate need of quirk.

Nevertheless, the album’s acoustic ballads shine. “Various Storms & Saints” is a stunning journey to simplistic instrumental land; Welch weaves her softened-up way around a sole electric guitar played as delicately as an acoustic one, and the result is ghostly, sexy and calm. “Long & Lost” elicits similar intimacy with eerily ascending backup whispers. And the sheer restraint of “St. Jude” adds to serious refinement — Welch controls her cry here and shows she can still be mysterious while doing it. Clever girl.

“Caught,” perhaps the most pop of the bunch, is charmingly sad. It’s exactly the kind of song they play in a rom-com after Girl and Boy break up, during a montage of Girl doing various mundane activities with a little less “joie de vivre” because something just doesn’t feel right. Usually Girl or Boy then does something about that unsettled feeling, and the movie ends with a great kiss or reunion or splitting of a strand of spaghetti.

Does this album do that in the end? Does Florence make amends with her elusive male muse, with all things big and blue and (I’m assuming, tragically) beautiful? Not quite. But one listen to the otherworldly, extro-spective symphony of hums, drums and fuzzy guitars on the closing “Mother” and you can’t help but feel infinite again. She got there. We got there. And at least the windows were down along the way.

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