High as Hope by Florence + the Machine: June 29, 2018
Imagine bringing your closest, most loved friends and family together for an evening. Over cigarettes and wine the idle chatter fades away, until miraculously, a hush falls over the party. Friends so close no more words need saying. This moment will be lost admist the cacophony of passionate, more exciting ones, but this momentary stillness of happy people is most precious. Florence and the Machine’s High as Hope is what that would be like if you captured that moment in song.
High as Hope is strange as far as Florence and the Machine albums go. It’s so incredibly minimalist compared to their earlier work. Gone are the frantic drum lines of “Drumming Song” or “Heartlines.” The slamming guitar riffs of “Ship to Wreck” or “What Kind of Man” are no where to be heard. The duelling harmony lines of “Delilah” or “Dog Days are Over” — absent too. Even similar efforts like “What the Water Gave Me” and “Shake It Out” built to climatic bridges and final choruses, less so here.
Instead, tracks like “June,” “Sky Full of Song,” and “No Choir” are almost acapella save for the subtlest of musical accompaniment. They feel like the rule rather than the exception. For all the hype about brass sections and choirs, they’re very discreetly used. Even in the swell of tracks like “Grace,” or “Big God,” Florence Welch’s incredible voice stands alone in a way that it hasn’t before.
That goes for more than just music, lyrically Florence is one of the most poetic, literary songstresses of our generation with songs that reached into a deep well of literary references. Here, save for “Patricia” — an homage to Patti Smith — and maybe a few scattered Biblical allusions, there are few that feel like they are swimming in the same currents. There are no tracks immersed in calling back to 1930s horror films (“Howl”), Virginia Woolf (“What the Water Gave Me”), Ted Hughes (“How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful”), or mythology (“Rabbit Heart”). Florence’s previous albums had enough water imagery to drown in. High as Hope has maybe one or two.
Album wise, it makes sense. Lyrically and musically stripped bare, Florence Welch takes listeners on a house tour of her life, including all the nostalgia, fears, and intimacies. “At 17 I started to starve myself,” begins the lead single “Hunger,” and then, self-aware, turns to a youthful, arrogant proclamation: “You make a fool of death with your beauty / and for a moment I forget to worry.” Then in the nostalgic “South London Forever,” Florence points out the pubs and places where drunken 20-something climbed the roof of a museum. Wait a few more tracks, “100 Years” is a song that feels like you hit your 30s and are suddenly discovering what a hangover feels like. “Hubris is a bitch,” Florence curses.
Unlike any previous album, this has to be listened to cover-to-cover. Each song climbs a little way further to the mountaintop, the summit reached finally at “No Choir.” But as the title suggests, there is no crescendo here. No accompaniment, Florence opens: “It’s hard to write about being happy because I find the older I get I find that happiness is an extremely uneventful subject.” For a moment, we are all gathered in her living room, doing nothing, but gathered in a true moment of happiness — a respite from the chaos of the outer world. It’s beautiful.