(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #89 – released July 3, 2009)
Track listing: Dog Days Are Over / Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) / I’m Not Calling You A Liar / Howl / Kiss With A Fist / Girl With One Eye / Drumming Song / Between Two Lungs / Cosmic Love / My Boy Builds Coffins / Hurricane Drunk / Blinding / You’ve Got The Love
Apologies to instrumentalists everywhere, but a striking, singular voice is usually what I first respond to when hearing new music. I suspect many listeners feel this way; otherwise, The Voice might not have become this decade’s most popular musical competition reality TV show. And there’s so many different types of voices worth hearing, running the gamut from those with perfect, bell-like clarity and precision (Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Nilsson) to those few so weird and otherworldly you can barely believe it’s coming from a human being (early Kate Bush, later Tom Waits.)
In this project, I’ve written about voices that have instantly startled (Portishead’s Beth Gibbons), comforted (Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch), disarmed (Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell) and beguiled (Sam Phillips) me; I’ve also left a lot of amazing vocalists out that, for all their merit, never made an album I loved as much as what I’ve chosen to write about here. Annie Lennox, Chris Isaak, k.d. lang, Laura Nyro, even Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen—all pretty much up there with the singers mentioned earlier in this paragraph, but none of them made the cut (though lang’s Ingenue came awfully close.)
When Florence + The Machine emerged at the tail end of the oughts, leader Florence Welch’s voice was likely what you noticed before anything else. Even if you didn’t, their debut album’s title, Lungs, emphasized its most outwardly dazzling feature—the powerful, resounding vocals of a twenty-two-year-old Brit with long, flowing ginger locks decked out in enough scarves and Renaissance Faire-ready garb to make Stevie Nicks blush. And while the band contributes much to her dramatic sound (in particular keyboardist Isabella Summers, who co-wrote much of the material), in the tradition of Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs or Shirley Manson and Garbage, they’re mostly in the background—it’s all about Florence and she alone is enough to capture anyone’s attention.
Still, a great voice alone only gets one so far artistically, as you could ask a majority of The Voice and American Idol contestants (and a few winners.) Lungs is not only an ideal introduction to Welch’s pipes, it’s also mightily impressive for a debut album—perhaps one of the decade’s best (though I’d place it right behind Nellie McKay’s.) Rarely does an artist arrive so fully formed in both sound and songs with perspectives and influences one can immediately identify (easily the aforementioned Kate Bush, definitely Siouxsie and the Banshees, maybe some Echo and the Bunnymen) and yet come off as refreshing and new.
Although not its first single, Lungs’ opener “Dog Days Are Over” was most Americans’ introduction to the band. More than a year after the album’s release, it became a surprise hit, thanks predominantly to a performance on the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Fully laying out the essentials of the band’s sound, it opens (and closes) with a harp (for the most part Lungs’ unlikely lead instrument), almost furiously strummed like a ukulele before Welch sings the first line, “Happiness hit her / like a train on a track,” stretching out both “train” and “track” to umpteen syllables, simultaneously coming off as lucid and a little woozy. Percussion heavy with handclaps enters next, followed by booming drums at the chorus. Welch makes the cliche of a song title register throughout the building start-and-stop, loud/quiet/loud tension of the arrangement. The moment at 3:05 when everything drops out for a brief false ending, only to return full force a second later, is an euphoric moment conveying her pop savvy, even if the song’s still quirky enough to remain one of its era’s least likely hits.
I first heard Lungs some ten months before when it nearly topped the UK Album Charts and transmitted the kind of buzz suggesting it’d be right up my alley. For me, it was the second track (and the band’s first top 20 UK hit), “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” where I fell for Florence + The Machine. Beginning with a swirling maelstrom of harps and flittering flutes, it ascends from the first verse on, urgent and effervescent with Welch’s multi-tracked cries of “RAISE IT UP!”; even that’s before the wondrous chorus which blossoms from electronic anticipation to full-flowered delirious frenzy: “This is the gift! / It comes with a price! / Who is the lamb / and who is the knife!” As she goes on about King Midas and makes allusions to Alice In Wonderland, you’d be tempted to dismiss her as precious or pretentious and yet it’s near-impossible to not fully surrender yourself to her flights of fancy (the song’s seemingly endless melodic permutations help a lot.)
Other Lungs tracks can just as easily render listeners fans for life. When I took my husband to see them in concert on Halloween, 2010 (of course the entire band was in costume), he had never heard their music. They opened with another album highlight, “Howl”: its sparse intro with dramatic piano chords giving way to a calvary-coming beat, the verses practically cascading towards the chorus where Welch both sings and personifies the song’s title, later spitting out phrases like Nicks or Robert Smith of The Cure at warp speed—it definitely captured the husband’s attention, to the point where, at his insistence, we repeatedly listened to the song in the car the following day.
Along with the mid-tempo but no less harp-centric “I’m Not Calling You A Liar”, Lungs’ first four tracks establish Welch’s core aesthetic so entirely it comes off more like the work of seasoned artists than a debut. Thus, it’s a little surprising/thrilling for Welch to come out of the closet as a rock goddess on the next song. “You hit me once / I hit you back / You gave a kick / I gave a slap,” she begins, a capella, on “Kiss With A Fist”, continuing, “So I smashed a plate / over your head / and set fire to our bed.” Then the music enters: no harp, no strings, just a lotta fast electric guitar (as if she’s turned into Joan Jett or The Ramones) and it’s all over in a very punk two minutes. Given that “Kiss With A Fist” was her very first single, you can explain it as an early experiment, an artist developing her sound by trying on various genres.
Still, on Lungs she follows it with a cabaret-style blues (“The Girl With One Eye”) that scans queerer than Dusty Springfield (“Get your filthy fingers out of my pie”, she warns) and spookier than Lee Hazelwood-produced Nancy Sinatra. Then, there’s “Drumming Song”, which rocks harder than Concrete Blonde or even Evanescence, harnessing a driving power by keeping the arrangement tight while still allowing for a sense of space—it positions music as nothing less than convocation and salvation; these last two tunes have no harp, either, but emit enough drama to fit in seamlessly with what precedes them.
The remainder of Lungs returns to the sound of those earlier tracks. “Between Two Lungs” starts off tentatively, its unconventional time signature and vocals-weaving-in between-the-beats purposely disorienting, but everything eventually falls into place as it transforms from tone poem into anthem, not necessarily catchy but somehow stuffed with hooks. “My Boy Builds Coffins” applies Welch’s Sturm und Drang to a near-jangle-pop (the harp does jangle a bit), Kirsty MacColl-esque character study that’s both a little silly and oddly charming, notifying listeners regarding the titular beau, “He’s made one for himself / One for me too / One of these days, he’ll make one for you.” “Hurricane Drunk” is alternately heavy (“I’m gonna drink myself to death,” goes the chorus) and lighter than air (that soulful, toe-tapping beat), while “Blinding” is an extremely slow burn of a mood piece, minor-key but not sluggish, mysterious but not impenetrable.
All good tunes, but “Cosmic Love” is the second half’s obvious centerpiece. It’s mostly just three chords repeated, but you sense there’s an entire world within them. It reprises the loud/quiet/loud structure of “Rabbit Heart” and the thunderous percussion of “Drumming Song” and piles on the harp glissandos more excessively than any other track (which is saying a lot.) Any reasonable person reading this description would expect the song to implode on the weight of all these ingredients (like a burst souffle), and yet, not only does it stay afloat, it soars, higher and higher until it reaches a tremendous, sustained peak. Like love itself, I can’t explain the why or the how of what it does; for me, it just emits a kind of pure, unadulterated bliss.
Lungs goes out on a cover of “You’ve Got The Love”, a Candi Staton song few Americans know that hit the UK top ten in various remixed versions three times between 1991 and 2007; this version also became Flo’s first UK top tenner. It plays like a victory lap, basically Florence-izing Staton’s gospel/dance original into a harp-and-strings-heavy, joyous pop finale. While they haven’t had a more popular American single than “Dog Days Are Over”, Welch and her band are no one-hit wonders, either—they’ve even scored a number one album here with the best of their three subsequent records, 2015’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. I used to say Welch had a potential Hounds of Love somewhere within her; this year’s dour High As Hope was decidedly not it, but I’m mostly optimistic she’ll retain rather than rein in her idiosyncrasies as she moves into her mid-thirties and beyond.
Up next: The ninetieth entry, and our first artist to be born in the ’90s (!)
“Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”: