I tend to like music with “big” sounds, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Florence + the Machine’s debut album, Lungs, is on my short list of the best albums released this millennium. Pretty much everything about the album is excellent, from the instrumentation and atmosphere to the production and performance. Most of all, Florence Welch’s booming vocals take center stage on several of the tracks as she belts out cathartic high points on nearly every song on the album.
Needless to say, I was interested to see what they would do for a second act. When Ceremonials came out this past fall, it quickly made a good impression on me with all the same familiar sounds that made Lungs a smashing success. The album sounded great and I probably listened to it about ten times in the week after I picked it up. But then something funny happened: I realized that I didn’t really like the album that much at all.
This really confused me, because Ceremonials had the same sound as Lungs; it really sounded fantastic. Tracks like “Lover to Lover”, “All This and Heaven Too” and “Shake it Out” particularly caught my attention. It was easy to point out what was right about this album, but I quickly lost interest in it and pointing out why it missed the mark was more difficult.
Trying to reconcile the conflict, I checked out some of the critic reviews over at Metacritic. Most of the reviews were very positive, but I probably would have been in agreement after just three or four listens, so I checked out some of the less positive reviews to see if anyone could capture my dissonance. Writing for Pitchfork, Ryan Dombal noted:
Instead of Lungs’ largely charming yet discombobulating diversity, Ceremonials suffers from a repetitiveness that’s akin to looking at a skyline filled with 100-story behemoths lined-up one after the other, blocking out everything but their own size.
Yep, that’s a pretty good summation. The whole thing looks to be so big and overwhelming that it overshadows itself. Oh, and how about Alix Buscovic from the BBC:
Ceremonials, which sees Lungs producer Paul Epworth return but ignore all restraint, offers the pomp, but somehow not quite the power, of Welch’s debut: this is all grandeur without any grace. The more weight and length (the average is five minutes) given to the songs, the less impact they have and the more wearied they leave you…
If I had to sum up Ceremonials in three words, it would be “grandeur without grace.” It was the last bit that caught my interest, however. I looked at song times from the two albums, and here’s what I saw:
Yikes! The way tracks from Ceremonials are substantially longer than their counterparts on Lungs is rather striking, but it didn’t logically seem to follow that the time difference made them lesser songs. After all, I could spin through other songs at those lengths (and longer) that are personal favorites. In fact, literally doing just that was what inspired me to come up with this whole list. The longer tunes may drive home just how mediocre many of the songs on the album are, but if the tunes were better, I don’t think time would be a factor.
Ultimately, I think that the problem with Ceremonials was the songwriting. The songs from Lungs were instinctual and visceral. Simple, basic lyrics like the chorus in “Dog Days are Over” make you want to get up and shout it out with Florence. You feel it, you understand where it’s coming from. Ceremonials sounds a little more like a promo or an opening theme for some dramatic-ish television show on FOX (yes, I’m talking about you, “Only if for a Night”). The darker, more conflicted themes of the album don’t allow for the triumphant exclamations of certainty that make the songs from Lungs so accessible and epic. I don’t always need great lyrics to make me really enjoy a piece of music, but when your calling card is your voice, what you’re saying matters a little more. Here, it just doesn’t work.
Now that I’ve taken a big detour to talk about an album that wasn’t great, let’s bring this back around to “You’ve Got the Love”, the fantastic album-closer from Lungs. It’s got everything that makes Florence + the Machine so successful: strong, powerful vocal and instrumental statements that aim high and are right on target. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that at 2:49, it’s the band’s second shortest tune.