“Ceremonials” has been one of my favorite albums for quite some time now. When it was released, I knew little about Florence Welch, the face of “the Machine.” I knew she could sing, I knew she was tall, and I knew she had fiery red hair and sort of resembled Tori Amos. I also knew I found her interesting, but I wasn’t really sure what that meant. I hadn’t heard her debut album, nor had I given much attention to her modest hit “Dog Days Are Over.” All of this was, I would soon discover, my loss.
“Ceremonials” is a body of work that completely transcends everything everyone says or knows or pretends to know about music. It is comparable to the works of Bjork, Fiona Apple, and The Who in that way. It occupies a space far beyond reality and transports the listener with full sensory awareness. Put simply, it renders reality irrelevant.
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Welch’s signature wail is that of a deity calling to arms its worshippers – packed with emotion and a grandiosity not readily seen in this world. The disc is littered with layers of harp and tribal drum and nearly every song contains a full-on choir of backup, which elevates the music to spiritual status and matches with some of its intensely spiritual tracks.
Florence + the Machine primarily explores, through the lens of human relationship and existence, salvation and damnation. On the Aretha-esque “Lover to Lover” she muses, “There’s no salvation for me now/No space among the clouds/And I feel I’m headed down/But that’s alright.” These thoughts permeate the album. “Seven Devils” uses obvious religious metaphor to condemn a former lover, while “Never Let Me Go” and “What the Water Gave Me” deal with suicide and its aftermath.
The music itself is as big as anything I’ve heard and must have been a beast to produce. The mammoth walls of sound that back the banshee cry of Welch’s alto raise goosebumps and all but alter brain chemistry. Listening is an exorcism in and of itself. “Shake It Out,” possibly the only song ever that deals with both with existentialism and a hangover, is a triumphant exorcism of past demons and an inspirational anthem that doesn’t sound one bit like one.
Things do get quieter. “Breaking Down” is a jarring and deeply affecting up-tempo that sports incredibly dark lyrics about self-loathing and insecurity, and the excellent “All This and Heaven Too” has vocal parts sung in almost a whisper. Welch is truly a poet. She spins enthralling narratives and creates nearly tangible images, boasting grand metaphor and brutal realism simultaneously. The record is, technically, a knockout. But it’s
not about technicality in the slightest.
“Ceremonials” is like that childhood blanket you carry around with you to sleepovers. It brings up questions of the future and makes us look at our past. It speaks to the cosmos and to the individual. Listening to “Ceremonials” has many parallels to Florence’s fascination with drowning; it encompasses you … slowly, then all at once. It eventually becomes a part of you, destroying what came before and shaping what comes after.