If you’re only mildly familiar with the music of Florence + The Machine, chances are, the two songs you know are “Dog Days Are Over” and “Shake It Out.” The former begins with cheerful harp strumming and the lyric “Happiness hit her like a train on a track.” The latter features a jubilant refrain about “shaking the devil off your back.” Considering this, casual listeners might be surprised upon hearing High As Hope, the band’s fourth album. As the simple cover art—a portrait of lead vocalist Florence Welch staring numbly into the distance with flowers in hand—suggests, this record is raw and free of false pleasantries. There is a light in the thicket, but Welch never forgets to acknowledge just how fearsome that thicket can be, perhaps making this her most poignant album yet.
One of the best things about the songs on High As Hope is the way they deal in extremes. They are gracefully austere, until they are not. Many of the ballads (it should be noted that this is an album of ballads) start out with almost no instrumentation. Then, somewhere along the way, Welch’s voice swells with a sudden burst of passion, and drums and strings resound, matching the urgency of her tone.
One notable track that fits this description is “Big God.” To sum it up, “Big God” is probably the most epic, most heartbreaking song about ghosting ever written. Welch told the New York Times that it was “obviously” about “an unfillable hole in the soul, but mainly about someone not replying to my text.” Accordingly, the lyrics consist of lines like “You need a big God/big enough to hold your love” next to lines like “You keep me up at night/To my messages, you do not reply.” The way that Welch recognizes the depth of her emotions instead of trivializing them will be incredibly fulfilling to anyone who has ever felt stabbed by a read receipt and recognized the pain as part of something greater. Each time the music is punctuated with moments like a jarring electronic flourish, a gasp, and a low groan, this pain is made salient.
“Hunger” is another unsettling, yet beautiful song. From the moment Welch sings, “At seventeen, I started to starve myself,” it’s clear that she will hold nothing back on the track. Sure enough, the verses are full of confessions that give the listener a brief ride through Welch’s former misconceptions, such as “I thought that love was on the stage/You give yourself to strangers/You don’t have to be afraid.” Staying true to the promise of the album’s title, though, there is an element of cheer here—especially in the outro, which closes with the phrase “For a moment, I forget to worry.” In light of this happy ending, “We all have a hunger” is not so much a cry of mourning, but a statement of acceptance and recognition. It’s no wonder that this track is one of the album’s most sonically upbeat.
The other tracks on the album are also impressive. While they largely have a similar pace and tone, each one has a distinguishing flourish or two that sets it apart from the rest. “Grace” features backup vocals that create a vibe almost reminiscent of a Gospel choir. “Patricia”’s story makes it stand out—it’s a passionate homage to “punk poet laureate” Patti Smith. “100 Years” has a driving stomp-clap rhythm. Each one was clearly crafted with love and scrutiny.
All in all, High As Hope is one of the most fulfilling explorations of hardship you’ll listen to this summer. Indeed, we all have a hunger—but put on this record, and Florence + the Machine just might help you satiate yours for 40 minutes.