If there’s one lyric I’d use to describe what you’d expect from Florence and the Machine’s third album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, I’d actually pick one from the middle of the album’s closer ‘Mother.’ In that moment, lead singer Florence Welch begs “Mother, make me/Make me a bird of prey/So I can rise above this/Let it fall away.”
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of Florence and the Machine’s music is written from a vulnerable place. I mean, lots of music is. But when the third single from the previous album Ceremonials directly references Virginia Woolfe’s suicide and ‘No Light, No Light’ is trying to beg someone to stay to the point she asks “Tell me what you want me to say,” it gives you an idea what kind of place the previous records were coming from.
However, there’s something different about How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful that took me a few listens to really catch onto. Where Ceremonials was about digging further into a darker place, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is about emerging on the other side into the light and figuring out how to take your life back in a proactive way. That’s part of why the bird of prey line struck me so much. It’s easy to say that you want to be a bird and fly away from your problems, but the specific imagery of a bird of prey is a rather large animal that attacks its prey at high speeds.
It actually surprised me on repeated listens how angry this record can be at points. The lead single ‘What Kind of Man’ is the biggest example with Welch admonishing the subject of the song for stringing her along and ‘Queen of Peace’ talking about being driven away from someone because of that person’s actions. The deluxe version bonus track ‘Make Up Your Mind’ is more obvious about it, with the chorus of “Make up your mind/Let me leave or let me love you/While you’ve been saving your neck
I’ve been breaking mine for ya.” It’s not overt, screaming anger, but the quiet kind that lives at the surface that you should be more afraid of.
Even in those spots of anger or even in the spots of sadness like in ‘St. Jude’ (named for the patron saint of lost causes and desperate situations) where Welch admits the relationship in question was doomed before she appealed to the titular saint that she uses female pronouns on, the record is overall a hopeful one. Using a brighter, more 80s pop inspired sound, the lyrics match up as well. None of the decisions made in the songs are easy ones, but the fact that Welch takes more of an approach to live life and try to save herself is astounding. I cannot remember the last time I heard a mainstream album where someone was processing their feelings about a relationship and their own behaviors in such a way that even when they’re licking their wounds from it, they still come out of it hopeful to move on.
It feels cheap to classify this as a breakup album. Part of it is, but at the end of the day, it’s so much more than that. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is a record about reflecting about the hard times and turning those experiences into power as you move on with your life. Whoever hurt Welch, I hope they realize that she’s coming out of it more powerful than they could ever be.