Florence and the Machine: “Lungs”
Florence Welch took the simple word Lungs as the title for her debut album with the Machine, and, as big and bloated as the music is, such a spare moniker seems, at first, like a strange irony. But not so fast: Lungs is a fitting banner for this inaugural outing on a couple of levels. It’s taken from a track called “Between Two Lungs,” in which our heroine cries out that her poor heart is so full of sweet and awful emotion that it feels as though it’s trapped within her body, awaiting to burst forth from its fleshy confines. But the title takes on another meaning, as well: It’s a sort of signifier for Welch’s own tendency, at times, toward the grotesque; for as happy as she sounds singing about that ooey-gooey feeling called “love,” she’s just as happy singing about ripping out another woman’s eye and watching it slowly wither.
You could say that somewhere between those two opposites– transcendence on the one hand, earthiness on the other– lies Lungs, and indeed, Florence herself, but that would assume that this music, and this singer, could ever be content to find themselves between anything. But no, this is an album that insists on having it all, on enveloping both ends of the spectrum in its outsized sprawl, in keeping one foot in each extreme at all times. And that’s what this music is: It’s extreme. It’s art-pop for the Glee crowd, low-culture opera for those who think Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge! is pure poetry, modern-day folk songs for listeners who find Joanna Newsom to be too out-there, Amy Winehouse too vanilla.
To speak more plainly: Lungs is enormous, expansive, bloated with ideas, at times wearying, and frequently just too damn much. It’s also extraordinary, breathtaking, and utterly brilliant. And its brilliance is not a hand-me-down; more than any other half-dozen pop albums you could name, this is brilliance of a one-of-a-kind nature.
And that in itself is fairly odd, given the singer’s backstory– she’s been an It-girl in the British music press for some time now, thrown in with songstresses like Adele and Duffy and even given a commercial makeover by a trio of hit-machine producers from the UK– but it’s also a little strange given that, really, the entire album could be reviewed via a lengthy set of name-dropping. Consider this: Though she’s a soul singer of the same caliber as Winehouse or Duffy, she’s less interested in retro R&B than she is in elaborate labyrinths of sound, not unlike Newsom– and yes, she even plays harp. She’s enamored of non-traditional song structures in a similar manner to Kate Bush, as well as vocal contortions of the Bjork-ian kind. She enjoys a production as ornate and other-worldly as St. Vincent‘s, a tendency toward bluster that rivals that of Muse, and a flair for the macabre that brings to mind Tom Waits or Nick Cave– but rather than a bluesy howl or a punkish sneer, she delivers her songs via arias and spectacular vocal showcases that are pitched somewhere in the general vicinity of Broadway showtunes, or perhaps a less serious Patrick Wolf album. I could address the PJ Harvey comparisons that she’s been getting, as well, but now I’m starting to lose my place.
The point is, Lungs bears superficial resemblance to all of those artists but sounds ultimately like none of them, as Welch has an oversized personality that can’t help but shine with its own, utterly individual light. I return to my Glee reference here, because it’s really the best way to begin summarizing Welch’s sound: She’s blessed with a golden voice that suggests she could have a rich and fruitful career belting out neo-soul or retro-minded R&B, but she instead utilizes it in a broadly theatrical manner, all within the context of pop songs. That term is used loosely, of course– structurally, there’s nothing conventional or conservative about this music– but the songs are melodically rich and hooky, even if it takes a listen or two to unearth some of those hooks from the sheer density of the sound.
And it can be overwhelming, as there’s nothing sparse here, few moments that give the listener room to breath. The album kicks off with a four-song sequence of brightly Technicolor pop, St. Vincent via Tim Burton, harps and guitars and layer upon layer of multi-tracked Florences giving the proceedings an operatic weight. That’s a trick she uses throughout the album: Even “Girl With One Eye,” which starts as a fairly primitive blues number that one can almost imagine Nick Cave singing, eventually explodes into a Broadway crescendo of voice and crashing cymbals.
Still, garishly-colored or not, the magic here is hard to resist. “Dog Days Are Over” is simply some of the most exhilarating pop of the year, a visceral blast of euphoria that ebbs and flows like a theater piece but kicks like rock and roll, Welch standing at the center of it and commanding the waves like some sort of goddess. That she can elevate romantic love to such melodramatic, operatic levels makes her a significant talent, but that she can push it to such frenzied heights without the whole thing crumbling on top of her– and without ever drifting into parody– makes her a star, magnetic and simply astonishing. And she does it more than once: “Drumming” weaves pop magic around a circle of tribal drumming to create a blissful trance, and “Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up)” is a choral anthem that flattens anything Patrick Wolf has recorded.
That latter song is also a key to unlocking the secret of Welch’s magic: For as taken to broad emotional gestures as she is, she tempers her theater-student enthusiasm with a storyteller’s understanding of drama, or at least the ideas behind drama. Lungs is an album that’s not only high on feeling, but also given grit and weight by a love of myth, a curiosity with violence, a sense of conflict. “Rabbit Heart” matches its aural and emotional pomp with its mythic grandiosity, referencing Alice in Wonderland as shorthand for disorientation and obsession before moving to a King Midas riff for its chorus, all fatalistic sadness and epic melancholy. It’s something of a case of mixed metaphors, but it’s also intoxicating: The whole album is, similarly, drunk on story itself.
But if she has a geekish love of lore and folk stories– which she assuredly does; look again to the outlandish violence of “Girl With One Eye,” a gothic blues of bizarre violence– Welch tips us off to the true range of her interests and her gift when she stirs up a set of myths that are utterly contemporary. First single and still Welch’s most talked-about tune, “Kiss with a Fist,” commandeers the White Stripes’ minimalist blues, and even the melody of “We’re Going to be Friends,” but what moves it from parody into homage and on into true inspiration is the lyric, a cheeky, pitch-black send-up of domestic violence that provides an eerie twist to Jack White’s own lyrical themes and romantic obsessions. It’s proof that behind Welch’s flamboyance lies understanding, and behind her garishness and pomp lies intelligence and storytelling spark. That breathes humor into Lungs,a and also gives it its heart– and it makes Florence’s debut something that’s unbelievable even once it’s heard.