Florence + The Machine: Looking for Hope in Confession

Sarah Welch-Larson

“This is the only thing I’ve ever had any faith in,” begins the chorus of the song “Grace,” which comes late in Florence + The Machine’s newest album High As Hope. It’s a confessional song, recounting a shameful moment from the singer’s youth, but it could just as well be a creed.

The whole album feels stripped back from Florence Welch’s previous work, a little more open and personal. Welch has always positioned her music in a spiritual place; her lyrics nod toward a mix of Catholic, pagan, and Wiccan practices specifically. Her music videos drive the point further home: she dances in a church for “Drumming Song,” runs from a voodoo practitioner in “No Light, No Light,” and grapples with a demon in “Delilah.” All of her videos for her third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, include a gesture that involves touching another person’s lips, then touching her own, an act that brings to mind the sacrament of Eucharist, especially its communal nature.

Welch has stated that she is not religious, but that she is fascinated with the trappings of spirituality. She told the UK’s Daily Star, “Sex, violence, love, death, all the topics that I’m constantly wrestling with, it’s all connected back to religion.” Her earlier songs and albums especially feel as though religion is a decorative veneer over the other topics she’s addressing. Her debut album Lungs is aggressive and floral, more content to sing at the listener than to them. The follow-up, Ceremonials, is moodier, darker, and more introspective. HowBig, How Blue, How Beautiful, released in 2015, is expansive and despairing; it’s clearly a breakup album, but contains small notes of hope, especially in the titular song. While Lungs and Ceremonials demonstrate Welch’s interests, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a slight lifting of the veil, a peek inside her head.

High As Hope lifts that veil further, expanding on Welch’s views about life and love. “Patricia” asks, “With your big heart, you praise God / But honey how’s that working out for you? / Do you feel loved?” It feels like a shadowy echo of 1 Corinthians 13:2— “If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” The song closes with the repeated line, “It’s such a wonderful thing to love,” perhaps affirming the song’s earlier verse, addressing its subject’s need not just for faith, but relationship.

Welch’s lyrics proclaim a message of love above all else; whether this love is exclusively romantic or spiritual depends on the song, the verse, the line.

The songs of High As Hope are about love, but they’re less about the feeling of enduring a breakup or the end of a romantic relationship, and more about the concept of love itself, in all its forms: romantic love, yes, but also friendship and affection and the driving need to both love and to feel loved. The lead single from the album, “Hunger,” and its accompanying music video both speak to the universal nature of love Welch is driving at. “We all have a hunger,” Welch sings, as people circle a statue with stigmata-like holes in its hands and side; the statue is hollow, a vessel to hold whatever people need to fill it with. The statue stands in a different context for each person—a museum, a private collection, a bedroom, a church—and yet the meaning is always the same. Everybody worships. Everybody needs love.

This is a move away from the big, devastating breakup anthems of previous albums toward the heartbreaks that come with a loss of innocence. The album cover drives this point home: where her previous cover art shows Welch at rest, in dark colors, this one is bright, almost airy; Welch stands, arms crossed, in a pink dress holding a flower. She looks younger than she ever has; somewhat defensive, but stepping into the light, ready to talk face-to-face about what drives her.

The songs from High As Hope echo this posture. Nearly half the entries are quiet. These softer songs tell stories that sound like they could have been pulled from Welch’s youth: a romantic encounter with school friends on a spring day in London, a confession that she once spoiled a friend’s eighteenth birthday party. The louder songs, too, could be confessions or prayers. “100 Years” begins by proclaiming “I believe in love / And the darker it gets, the more I do.” It moves into the chorus, asking, “Lord don’t let me break this / Let me hold it lightly / Give me arms to pray with / instead of ones that hold too tightly.”

The whole album draws on predominantly Christian imagery; where Welch’s previous albums leaned on paganist language, this one sounds more like the Psalms. “Big God” is, at first, about an absent love who won’t respond to her, but towards the end it switches gears, asking God to rain down love in an allusion to Psalm 46:2: “Shower your affection, let it rain on me / And pull down the mountain, drag your cities to the sea.”

Welch’s lyrics proclaim a message of love above all else; whether this love is exclusively romantic or spiritual depends on the song, the verse, the line. The spiritual and the physical are intricately bound up together in her work. Wherever Welch is on her spiritual journey, it sounds like she’s searching, and she’s more willing to share that journey with others now than she has been in the past. High As Hope is a call to join her. We all need love; let’s explore all the ways we can join together and do everything in love.

Topics: Music