Anger and Hope in How Big How Blue How Beautiful
by Iryna Byelyayeva
I’ll admit Florence and the Machine’s How Big How Blue How Beautiful (2015) is probably the least coherent of the three albums released. Lungs (2009) was a gorgeous debut which makes me want to cover myself in glitter and go pick flowers in a field, while Ceremonials (2011) was powerful as hell. The first time I listened to How Big I really didn’t know what to think.
I was so excited when How Big came out. I woke up with determination in my heart and on my face, got dressed and went to the music shop. Bringing a shiny CD home, I nodded approvingly at the cover art—‘simple, elegant, neat, I like it.’ This was serious business. To me, Florence Welch, and whoever she chooses to collaborate with, can do no wrong. I had already listened to ‘What Kind of Man’ when the single came out, but that was through a phone-speaker in the unfortunately-overpriced food court of the Te Papa Museum in Wellington. Not the place, not the time. But this day, 29 May 2015, was the right time.
I put the CD in. I pressed play. ‘Ship to Wreck’ doesn’t mess about—it launches right into it and suddenly it was bombarding me with all these different sounds. It was like someone had been kept in a silence for months and then had been let loose in a room filled with random instruments. I was happy to hear Welch’s voice weaving poetry around me, but on the whole, the album really didn’t make me excited at all.
‘Queen of Peace’ is a loud, passionate song with a great use of trumpets and a good mix of highs and lows. It feels like it should be the beginning of the album. Four songs in and How Big finally starts to feel like it has some crafted structure. There are slow songs and fast songs and loud songs and some songs are all those things. The whole time Welch is singing but not in her usually calm, ethereal way. Her voice feels coarse and grounded. Months later, after (surprisingly) having listened to the album compulsively and done obsessive research, I realised that the new, harsher elements in her voice were there because she had become grounded. Welch is a very beautiful woman. She had porcelain skin and long, red hair and her taste in vintage fashion makes her into a walking art piece. She’s a modern-day pre-Raphealite’s wet dream. Then she starts to sing, something like “Cosmic Love” from Lungs, and you think ‘who is this angel?!’ How Big demonstrates that we were wrong—she’s not an angel, she’s a woman who feels pain and anger and hope. Her emotions can’t be structured neatly and poetically, they fly out of her at random times and each one needs its moment to be listened to.
An album which initially pushed me away, became all I wanted to listen to for the rest of the year. The more I listened the more I heard and felt. How Big was written after the ends of a lengthy world tour and a long-term relationship. It was written in the midst of a lot of partying and realisations. Welch does an incredible job of illustrating everything that must have been going through her head. How Big now seems like the purest example of someone turning to music as a form of therapy. The songs are strange and sewn together with a delicate mix of uplifting and angry tones. ‘Delilah’ is loud but initially reserved—you listen knowing that something is about it happen but feeling as though, whatever it is, it’s trying its best not to. In the middle the song calms, creating room for the explosion which follows. The drums hit harder, Welch sings faster and that reserved feeling is destroyed. ‘Delilah’ is one of those songs that make you want to dance around frantically and maybe rip something to shreds. The transition into the melancholy ‘Long and Lost’ illustrates Welch as tired after lashing out in ‘Delilah’. We can try to distract ourselves with wild behaviour all we want but at some point we go home, accept that we’re tired and lonely and sad and try our best to work though that. Welch softly singing ‘I figured out where I belong’ is one of my favourite parts of the album.
Usually, I’m all for leaving the artist out of my listening experience and trying to find something of myself in the songs but this album is purely Florence Welch and it should remain that way. I loved reading about how Welch though she had written ‘Third Eye’ for a friend who was having trouble but then came to the realisation she was subconsciously writing for herself. ‘You don’t have to be a ghost here amongst the living… you deserve to be loved and you deserve what you are given.’ Somehow, when Welch sings it, it doesn’t sound as much like a Tumblr cliché.
When I listen to Lungs or Ceremonials I get whisked away to another world where the sun is always shining and the water is crystal clear. How Big, conversely, made me come to terms with the fact that at that time I felt lonely too. I was having a hard time and Welch didn’t distract me from it. She made me listen to my own feelings of frustration and sadness and desperate hope by showing me hers. If the album was polished and neat with a poetic structure, we would have been cheated.
Iryna is a creative lady living in Melbourne, Australia. She is the Editor of The Wall Mag and gets published here and there. She can be followed on twitter @irynabyel