Compact Review: Florence + the Machine’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Florence + the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Rating: 84/100
Released: May 29, 2015

This album makes me want start giving out a new award for Most Solid Album of the Year (let’s call it the MSAY). The MSAY wouldn’t be the best album of the year. The MSAY goes to a record that sits confidently above average by my usual measurements but not exceedingly so. Since I’m making stuff up as I go, let’s say solidtude is determined by consistency of quality, enjoyability and replayability. The MSAY has zero bad songs but only few great songs. MSAY comes short of the emotional peaks or artistic achievements of the Album of the Year but still deserves a healthy amount of consideration and replay. In 2014 Gerard Way’s Hesitant Alien and Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways would have been contenders for the Most Solid Album of the Year. Both were extensively replayable, good or better from start to finish but only occasionally great; these albums have high degrees of solidtude.

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is very solid. 11 solid tracks. 48 solid minutes. No bad songs but no transcendent world beaters either. Everything on HBHBHB seems purposeful and selected with care. I respect artists who release music that is worth releasing, rather than opting to release as much as they can fit on single CD. It’s a classic Jurassic Park scenario and it applies as much to music as it does to dinosaurs. Just because science says we can fit 80 minutes of music on a disc doesn’t mean we should do the thing.

Singer songwriter Florence Welch and her Machine have found a nice little loophole by releasing her last two albums with deluxe editions that include a few extra songs and early demos of tracks that made the album. It’s great to have extra content for the die hards but I respect the restraint for the standard release. It might seem like a shameless way to try to get fans to spend an extra five bucks but I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume it was a decision made from a place of artistic maturity and integrity. For the sake of this review, I have only considered the 11 tracks on the non-deluxe version.

Florence + the Machine have always maintained a mystical, occasionally ethereal sound and image but How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful seems a bit more grounded. The cosmic spectacle of Florence’s narratives seem tangible though no less cinematic in scope. One of the strongest tracks on the album “Queen of Peace” is a Shakespearean drama about kingdoms torn apart by love and war but the sound is anchored in a familiar place. Guitars drive the rhythm with an orchestral accompaniment providing a lush backdrop for Florence’s theatrics but it’s the horn section that steals the show on “Queen of Peace”. HBHBHB doesn’t exactly seem bigger than Lungs or Ceremonials but it definitely seems heavier.  Theres a more prevalent guitar rock element that lets the band flex some new muscles and it works. Throughout HBHBHB, the arrangements seem focused and articulate with frequent use of horns making for a more accessible, entirely terrestrial experience.

The album lives up to its name: How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is very big, almost but not quite melodramatically blue and entirely beautiful. While there are fewer transcendently huge moments on this album, it is their most energetic and focused release to date. There aren’t any dance-floor anthems but most of the songs on How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful seem like they were designed to get a lethargic festival crowd moving. I saw Florence shut down the Outdoor Stage at Coachella in 2012 and the anthemic guitar driven songs like “What the Water Gave Me” translated best to a live environment. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a whole album of songs that seem suited perfectly for a big open air stages and with so many high profile festival performances over the past few years I can’t help but wonder if that was the plan the whole time. If so, it is a very solid plan.

Top Tracks: “Queen of Peace”, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,”, “What Kind of Man”

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