I don’t know where the phrase “Go big or go home” originated from. It’s usually tossed around on the athletic field or in some overly rambunctious social circle of frat bros and heavy drinkers. I can’t imagine that the phrase is ever used earnestly or by anyone actually trying to make a point. Then again, I never imagined that Florence Welch would live by it, but it seems that it (or at least the idea) has become her mantra for the much anticipated Ceremonials. Forgive me for the limited vocabulary but I cannot fathom another way to describe this most recent album as anything other than “big.” The beats are big. The vocals are big. The songs are big. The sound is big. You get the point here? At times, this opening-ceremony-of-the-Olympics grandeur can feel inspiring, but can also be a tad neglecting. I don’t want to haunt Florence and the Machine with comparisons to 2009’s Lungs, but that’s where my mind kept wandering to as I listened to this.
The album starts with a few seconds of minstrel building before busting out a massive drum beat and echoing vocals. That happens less than forty seconds in to the opening track “Only If for a Night,” and the album never really comes back down after that. We know that Welch loves to belt out her ballads. For those of you who haven’t seen a video online of her performing “Dog Days Are Over” live, I strongly suggest that you get to YouTube asap. While it is inspiring when she gets to those big notes, I don’t know how anyone could possibly feel up to hearing an entire album of it. I’m not picking on it. Virtually every song has a massive pounding larger-than-life beat and her unrestrained vocals accompanied by a rather large choir. The twelve tracks all feel like they could be the big closing number of an expensive Broadway production. On their own, the songs could come across as inspiring. “Never Let Me Go” has a spirituality about it with angelic echoes and lines like “And the question to heaven, for a sinner like me.” That song feels beautiful the first time around, but I’m not sure how impressed I am when she falls back on the same trick later in the album with “Lover to Lover” and “No Light, No Light.”
Inevitably, I had to juxtapose it with Lungs. Whether you loved or hated her freshman outing, you have to admit that it offered a wide array of styles. You had your catchy pop numbers with “Dog Days Are Over,” a funky garage rock thrash in “Kiss With a Fist,” a inspiring drum symphony in the aptly titled “Drumming Song” and delightful quirkiness in songs like “Girl With One Eye” and “My Boy Builds Coffins.” That’s not to say that I didn’t like the massive sound. My favorite song off of Lungs is “Blinding,” which sounds an awful lot like everything on Ceremonials. There is never any moment of intimacy. Every song falls back on that Lord of the Rings magnitude and isolates me in the process.
What I will say for Welch (I’m a little more keen on Florence than the Machine), is that she consistently delivers on her vocals. Even if it was too much for me, I can’t help but appreciate the power I feel that she delivers on every single note. She has the sort of effortless strength that makes me feel all of her notes in my chest. She shows an ability to lead an anthem-like tune in the sing-a-long “Shake it Out” as well as the ability to hold those endless fluctuating notes in “Leave My Body.” I’m sure seeing her pull this off in person is quite the experience.
I know that Welch and her Machine are an immensely talented band. I strongly believe that they will be able to pass the legacy of Lungs at some point. As for now, it just feels like a typical sophomore mistake; find what works and go to the well with it over and over again. Some bends make a living off of that (COUGH Coldplay COUGH). But I really think an artiste like Welch wants a little bit more.