Florence and the Machine’s new album High As Hope relies primarily on Florence Welch’s vocalization, so even though the album has been described as a more stripped-down version of her sound, the effect is still incredibly rich. The emotive wailing and powerful belting that is so signaturely Welch is present throughout. While the songs may never quite build to the dramatic heights of “Cosmic Love” or “Breath Of Life,” the sound of this album is not constricted so much as it is purposefully contained. The power and energy is still present and detectable, but it is not allowed to come to the surface nearly as often. This choice is understandable given the subject of the album, namely, heartbreak, trauma and personal demons.
Welch’s music is best described as ethereal, otherworldly, and these descriptors are certainly true of High As Hope. However, the sound of this album is also deeply human and mundane. The songs speak of loneliness, heartbreak and death. One of the early titles considered for the album — “The End of Love” — speaks to the duality of this album. While it is ultimately an account of Welch’s philosophy of hope, she has to describe the hardships that have made that philosophy so necessary, so hard-won. In an interview with Universal Music, Welch spoke to the consideration of “The End of Love” as a title. She said, “I was gonna call it ‘The End of Love,’ which I actually saw as a positive thing because it was the end of a needy kind of love, it was the end of a love that comes from a place of lack.”
The second track on the album, “Hunger,” provides a glimpse of this neediness and lack. Welch describes all the places she looked for love without finding it, and how she eventually came to associate love with emptiness, loneliness. “Hunger” starts angry, forceful and deeply personal. In the opening line, Welch references an eating disorder that she struggled with during her teenage years. She associates this hunger with her confused view of love, describing how she came to believe that love was supposed to leave you feeling empty.
The way Welch plays with the concept of space in her lyrics is fascinating. She talks of emptiness and loneliness, but even more intriguing is the way the songs allude to her struggling with the space she takes up. In “Big God,” she sings that “You need a big god / Big enough to hold your love” and “Big enough to fill you up.” Though the album is about emptiness, it is being written from the perspective of someone who has begun to learn to fill this emptiness.
The motif of physical space extends to the directional descriptors used in the album. High is used to refer to being high up or high on drugs, depending on the line. It is unclear what definition of high is being used in the title, an ambiguity that seems intentional and in character with the rest of the album.
“No Choir” is the standout of the album. Musically, it is similar to the opening song “June” — a quiet, emotional ballad built on Welch’s vocals and a piano accompaniment. In the final song, Welch finds a form of catharsis in accepting that, in fact, such a thing as catharsis may not exist. Where “June” implores the listeners to “Hold on to each other,” “No Choir” admits that the “loneliness never left.” The song gets its title from Welch’s assertion that there are no choirs, no choruses to narrate our lives. Despite this, the enduring message of the album is still one of hope. Welch no longer believes that love should be a painful, diminishing thing. However, she maintains containment to the very end.
As Welch said, this album is about finding a love that does not come from a place of lack. However, she does not so much abandon this lack as learn to carry it with her and put it down when necessary.