After Florence + The Machine’s 2009 debut, Lungs, there was no doubt that Florence Welch’s voice was big, but it may have been too big and unrestrained. In Lungs, Welch’s ethereal howling steamrolled through the album, leaving the listener feeling as if he were stuck in a wind tunnel. In Ceremonials, her sophomore release, Welch harnesses her vocals so that her voice is both haunting and refined at times, and powerful at others. Unfortunately, in Ceremonials, the spaces that would have been filled with Welch’s booming voice in Lungs have been replaced with resounding choruses and multi-layered instrumentals, largely creating the same effect as Lungs: too much.
Many of the tracks in Ceremonials sound overproduced, and the excessive use of multi-tracked vocals feels unnatural and unnecessary. While Welch’s voice is distinctive and beautiful, Ceremonials leaves the listener yearning for more organic, natural talent like that of fellow Londoner Adele, or psychedelic legend Grace Slick–it’s hard to believe that no one has made the Jefferson Airplane connection yet.
The album is aptly named, as it is largely influenced by death and its accompanying ceremonies. Welch once said the album was inspired by drowning, and nowhere is this more evident than in “Never Let Me Go,” an 80’s inspired ballad in which maritime references abound. Welch wails, “And the arms of the ocean are carrying me/And all this devotion was rushing over me/And the question to heaven, for a sinner like me/But the arms of the ocean delivered me.” In “Heartlines,” a Celtic-sounding song punctuated by thunderous drums and tinkling chimes, Welch also sings of drowning: “Oh, the river, oh, the river, it’s running free/And I’ll join in the joy it brings to me/But I know it’ll have to drown me/Before I can breathe easy.”
Elsewhere on the album, the dreamy harp and piano music make the listener feel suspended in the water while Welch’s vocals float and undulate around him. Unfortunately, while some of the tracks make drowning feel peaceful and harmonious, others swell with drama and overwhelm the listener, making him literally feel like drowning in the music, gasping for air.
In the opening track, “Only If For A Night,” Welch stays on the subject of death and the afterlife: “Dancing on tiptoes/My own secret ceremonials/Before the service began/In the graveyard doing handstands.” The song starts quietly but confidently, with Welch singing over a piano and harp, weaving tempo changes and moments of stunning silence. In “Breaking Down,” Welch fears she is losing her mind because she believes there is a ghost in her room. Welch collaborated with James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco on this beautiful track in which she softens her otherwise booming voice to a mere whisper.
There are several other noteworthy tracks on Ceremonials. “Remain Nameless” is an uncharacteristically minimalist electronic track, and a welcome opportunity to enjoy Welch’s voice with little instrumental distractions. “Seven Devils” is as spooky as its name suggests, and Welch’s voice melts over the eerie, downtempo drums and piano. “What the Water Gave Me,” alternates short crescendos with moments of quiet and then builds up to an explosive conclusion in which Welch sings some of her most impressive runs on the album.
Although there is much room for improvement in Ceremonials, the album is far from a disappointment. Overall, it is romantic and beautiful; witchy and mysterious; soulful and pensive; and, sure to be a commercial success.