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Florence + the Machine: High As Hope review – older, wiser, comparatively calmer

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pursues a noticeably different direction. It is, she confirmed, less “Florence-y”. It’s a statement that is hard to read without raising a quizzical eyebrow. Being Florence-y means dealing in a showy kind of musical melodrama, where tribal drums meet sawing orchestras, grandiloquent piano and the singer’s war-cry voice, heavy on the vibrato. It’s an approach that has earned her three platinum albums and a level of fame that’s led Penguin to collect and publish her biro-written poems, lyrics and inspirational notes-to-self in a book.

High as Hope – artwork
 High As Hope by Florence + the Machine (Universal)

Moreover, we have been here before. Her last album, How Big How Blue How Beautiful, arrived in 2015 after advanced publicity suggested it was going to be less Florence-y, too: the stripped-down work, as she put it then, of “a quiet person”. In reality, it sounded like the work of a person who could drown out a car alarm at 20 paces; an album during which you couldn’t swing the proverbial cat without clobbering a 36-piece orchestra, a lyrical metaphor involving Greek mythology or a massed choir of multi-tracked Florences turned up to 11.

But the first single from High As Hope suggested that, this time, she might mean it. Sky Full of Song dials things down considerably compared with the florid arrangements and bug-eyed vocals of What Kind of Man?, the song that introduced How Big How Blue How Beautiful. The orchestra are present but hovering in the distance behind a muted double-bass. The Choir of the Massed Florences are in a subdued mood, the vocals so close-miked that you can hear her breathing between lines. There is a sense of someone who realised that heading any further down the path of her previous albums might have led her into the realms of self-parody.

On occasion, the urge to go full-steam am-dram proves too hard to resist. The song 100 Years spends five exhausting minutes pelting the listener with every trick in the Florence book. Hunger takes a similarly Sturm und Drang approach, although its melodic foundations – and, indeed, her stark depiction of a teenage eating disorder – are strong enough to support the storeys of embellishment stuck on top. Elsewhere, she is capable of more restraint than ever before. Frequently, Welch’s notion of reining herself in simply involves waiting until the closing moments of a track before letting fly with the operatic vocal leaps and the thunderous drums. Nevertheless, these songs are allowed significantly more room to breathe than those on her previous albums.

The relative lack of clutter reveals something intriguing. Clearly desperate to be the kind of artist who constructs a phantasmagorical world in which listeners might lose themselves, Welch turns out to be really adept at something more earthbound. The music is most appealing when it is pared back – as on the sparse opener June – and her voice is most powerful when she isn’t belting it out. Similarly, High As Hope’s most emotionally impactful lyrics come when she abandons the rococo metaphors and focuses on small, telling details.

She is very sharp on that point in your early 30s when the realisation dawns that you can’t keep deluding yourself you’re not really an adult yet. There’s a lovely section in Hunger in which the music builds as she feels the mounting excitement of Friday approaching, only to realise that the messy hedonism of the weekend is something she is better off observing fondly from a distance: “Oh you and all your vibrant youth,” she sings, looking on, “how could anything bad ever happen to you?” South London Forever mixes up fuzzy memories of youthful indiscretions – staggering from a pub, “holding hands with someone I just met” while on ecstasy – with a warning that you should enjoy that stuff while you can, before indulging in it makes you a crushing embarrassment: “It doesn’t get any better.”

The latter song is poignant and airily beautiful: it doesn’t need a tacked-on grand finale. That it has one highlights the problem at the heart of High As Hope, an album that is undoubtedly a progression from her previous work, filled with well-written songs but still frustrating to listen to. It gives the distinct impression that there is a different artist somewhere within Florence Welch, struggling against the desire for grandiosity and the kind of big musical statements that have powered her career. High as Hope suggests she should sweat the small stuff more often.

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