Florence Welch has a big voice, big enough to sustain itself in the swirling ocean of production that would swamp a lesser vessel. Ironically the possibility of being pulled under the waves might just be what Welch is after on her much anticipated sophomore release. Ceremonials is alive with watery imagery and metaphors describing the illicit lure of drowning and its promise of release.
Ceremonials opens with “Only If For a Night,” a song that sets the album’s template. Welch cavorts with a practical ghost who doles out advice while the singer performs handstands and somersaults in a graveyard ritual. The massive wall of production includes strings, tribal drumming, choirs that echo off of what sounds like cathedral walls, and piano and harp that effectively imitate peeling church bells. Ceremonials may deal with dark or brooding subject matter but the melodies are ebullient. Welch calls it a type of exorcism with the music “battling the words.”
Speaking of which, Welch’s lyrics are proliferated with those aforementioned water themes. Most haunting is “Never Let Me Go” which takes it perspective from a protagonist who may be drowned or is in the act of drowning. “Looking up from underneath/Fractured moonlight on the sea/Reflections still look the same to me/As before I went under.” Instead of fear and pain, the singer finds peace in the arms of the ocean. “What the Water Gave Me,” is inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf and describes a woman, weighted down with “pockets full of stones,” wading into a watery grave. Welch’s preoccupation with living below the waves is also metaphorical as her subjects struggle with feelings of being overwhelmed by life or love, as on "No Light, No Light," a plea for resolution or revelation between a pair of lovers. Welch wraps the record by surrendering, or is it sacrificing herself on "Leave My Body."
Ceremonials is produced by Paul Epworth who has been a godsend for British chanteuses. He worked with Welch on her first release and with Adele on her hugely successful 21. His pop sensibilities can be heard on the danceable tracks “Shake It Out” and “Spectrum.” Booming percussion melds with organ and harp, blending gothic atmosphere with dance hall energy. Welch’s flair for the dramatic powers these songs and Epworth’s guidance may be the only thing keeping her from diving too far overboard. He barely reels in her vocals. Rumor has it that when Welch was an up and coming star still playing smaller clubs audience members situated in front rows were nearly blown out of their seats. Welch is a singer for the big stadiums and I’m sure she’ll be playing to huge crowds this tour. Her songs, with their soaring crescendos, are built for a large environment.
If Ceremonials’ lavish production is a stand in for swelling seas then Welch is the siren upon the rocks calling out to you to dash your day to day for an hour’s escape into the sea of Florence.