When Florence & The Machine took their place on the X Factor stage last night, alongside JLS and a host of those desperate to get their taste of fame the message was clear – the idea that Florence Welch is an underground sensation is long gone, her eye is on the ultimate prize. If Lungs took a while to seep its way into the public consciousness, the plan for Ceremonials is a lot more direct. Yet as Lady Gaga was to prove later that same evening in Belfast, major commercial success doesn’t always have to arrive at the expense of character.
Ceremonials is full of character, or at least the one that Welch chooses to project. It sees the last vestiges of the old, slightly hippy dippy Florence completely eradicated in favour of high drama, concepts and fashion. An incredibly stylish record from the off, the album shimmers into view with the bold piano led opening of ‘Only If For A Night’. Followed by the understated single ‘Shake It Out’ and the magnificently swampy ‘What The Water Gave Me’, Ceremonials gets off to a confident start, suggesting that there is to be little in the way of slip ups ahead.
Indeed, what follows on this properly lengthy LP (just over an hour) represents a consolidation of what has gone before rather than any great leap forwards. Whereas Lungs had moments that broke the mood (‘Girl With One Eye’, ‘Kiss With A Fist’), Welch’s second record tinkers with the formula very little. ‘Breaking Down’ and the echoey piano of ‘Lover To Lover’ offer hints of sixties girl group pop but this is still a very recognisable record, and one that tends to drift in the middle section. Whilst the strength of songwriting mostly carries it through, ‘No Light, No Light’ and ‘Seven Dials’ lose that touch and end up as empty vessels, all style and no content.
Thankfully, just when the record needs to rally it does in spectacular fashion. ‘Heartlines’ is an old fashioned show stopper, while ‘Spectrum’ does hint at a change of sound and sees her vocal really cut loose. ‘Strangeness and Charm’ is urgent and superb, while the closing pairing of ‘All This And Heaven Too’ and ‘Leave My Body’ pile epic on top of drama on top of hysteria. If the record had built to this point, it would have felt like a grand parting gesture but, as it is, it leaves you slightly drained. No stone has been left unturned, no second left unused, no space left unfilled with sound. If it’s meant to come across as confident and unbowed by the pressure of following such a successful debut, then Ceremonials is a success. Yet along the way, Florence Welch has lost a something of herself. Character is one thing, a bit of human emotion wouldn’t go amiss either.