High as Hope (released 29 June 2018 on
Republic/Virgin EMI Records) is the fourth studio album by Florence and the Machine, following 2015’s How
Big How Blue How Beautiful. Both albums are intimate and theatrical in style, but to
write her latest album lead singer/songwriter Florence Welch reportedly quit alcohol, read books and cycled every
day to her south London studio; a radical change in approach compared to her
Co-produced by Emily Hayne (who is known for working closely with Lana del Rey), the result is another beautiful but perhaps slightly more wistful album than the last.
Sky Full of Song, the first single from the album, in some ways reflects this change of pace from her wild partying years in her twenties to her apparent current yearning for more grounded days. “I was kissing strangers, I was causing such a scene […] Grab me by my ankles, I've been flying for too long,” she sings.
Another great single from the album, Hunger, sees Welch looking further back, to her teens, when she was anorexic. “At 17, I started to starve myself,” she bluntly sings, “I thought that love was a kind of emptiness, And at least I understood then, the hunger I felt, And I didn’t have to call it loneliness.” Welch and her collaborators employ cello to emphasise the raw lyrics, and this orchestration, coupled with Welch’s stark and soaring vocal, make this a standout track.
This is followed by South London Forever, which follows Welch on a sentimental journey through her youth. The lyric “Did I dream too big? Do I have to let it go? What if one day there’s no such thing as snow?” can perhaps be read as her doubting some of the decisions she has made, and wondering what her future might hold.
Big God, also released as a single, is another standout song on the album. Starting with a piano section and featuring Jamie XX on synth and Kamasi Washington on horns, Big God mixes religious and sexual imagery. “You need a big God, big enough to fill you up […] Jesus Christ, it hurts,” she sings. Welch has said that the song is about unanswered text messages, but we will leave you to make your own mind up about that explanation. In any case, whatever the meaning, the song sounds great.
Sampha co-wrote and sings on the piano-based Grace; a track that expresses remorse about how Welch treated her sister when they were younger and finds her doubting about whether she has fulfilled her mother’s hopes. “I’m sorry I ruined your birthday,” she sings, “I guess I could go back to university, try and make my mother proud.” However she also makes it clear that her ability to sing has been her saviour, as it is “the only thing I’ve ever had any faith in”.
Patricia is a tribute to one of Welch’s personal heroes, Patti Smith. “And do you understand with every seed you sow, you make this cold world beautiful?” she asks Smith, her ‘Northern star’.
Robert Ackroyd straps on his Guild F-50 for the acoustic backing of the powerful 100 Years, and that track and The End of Love lead to the final highlight of the album: No Choir. “It’s hard to write about being happy because the older I get, I find that happiness is an extremely uneventful subject”, she sings a capella.
On No Choir Welch again expresses her fears, this time about the possibility of losing inspiration; but as the lyrics drift away and she starts simply humming “la da da” it is difficult not to smile and think ‘no way!’ to that thought. High as Hope is searingly stark and honest and perhaps sees Welch at a transformative moment in her life, but it is difficult to imagine her without ideas and not marching forward to even greater things.