In the video for "Hunger," Florence + The Machine's first single from the new High As Hope, vibrant flower buds and moss bloom atop the stony surface of an old statue: What was once cold and revered, only marveled at from a distance, becomes a lush promise of renewal. That gradual flowering captures Florence Welch's intentions with her newest album: to flourish, to engage, to open up.
Welch's last record, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, explored the aftermath of a breakup, and in particular the aching emptiness and longing that accompanied it. Over the course of her career, she's developed a reputation for capturing cavernous, self-destructive emotions barely contained within her baroque sound. Who can forget the fragile, twinkling harps of "Cosmic Love," with the haunting allegation amidst its booming echoes: "You left me in the dark"? Or the galloping chorus of "Dog Days Are Over," an ostensibly cheerful song whose morbid description of happiness involves getting hit by an oncoming train? Defined by her soaring vocals and dark, furious energy, Welch seemed to worship a religion from before God was forgiving — her music thunderous and heavy, forever chased by demons and ghouls.
High As Hope preserves Florence's big, torrential melodrama, but it feels less like a storm than the soft light breaking in afterward amid the sober awe of a new day. Many songs begin unadorned, sustained by Welch's grand, echoing voice and minimal instrumental backing. "No Choir," the closing track, opens with a stark a cappella section: Her solitude proffers a source of power, a confidence in her ability to express herself on her own. Her previous albums were drenched in figurative language, elaborate creations that guarded her from reality, but in High As Hope she says plainly what she means. "I'm sorry I ruined your birthday," she apologizes in "Grace," a loving tribute to her sister. The album celebrates the intimate and mundane: her carefree upbringing in South London, her wistful adoration of Patti Smith, the unspectacular romance of two people doing nothing. Her songs are imbued with a tender optimism: "My heart bends and breaks so many, many times," she sings in "100 Days." "And is born again with each sunrise."
High As Hope also expresses the desire to capture sentiments larger than herself, inspired by collective moments she'd witnessed in New York during the summer of 2016. The opening track, "June," recalls "those heaviest days" "when love became an act of defiance," before leaping into a call for togetherness. "Hold on to each other," she repeats with almost maternal longing. "Hold on to each other." It's a novel turn for an artist whose persona has often centered on ideas of brokenness and irreconcilable isolation.
But for those who cherish the Florence of yesteryear, with all its grandeur and chiaroscuro, there's still a glimmer of her old self. The video for "Big God," a song about waiting for someone to text back, features a synchronized group of women writhing on a soaked floor, performing eerie dance moves twice as discomfiting as the words "read at 8:42 pm" below a sent text. Veiled dancers levitate like disembodied cherub heads in a Renaissance painting. "You'll always be my favorite ghost," Florence moans, lingering on the last word.
But for the most part, she seems done with ominous theatrics and inconsolable moods. In "Patricia," the singer strikes a sentiment unheard-of on her previous albums: "It's such a wonderful thing to love."