Listening to 'Lungs' is a reminder of what an exceptional debut it was for Florence Welch and her machine. It's also a reminder of everything this new album isn't.
It's a cliché, but 'Ceremonials' was a difficult second album, dialling everything up to eleven in the pursuit of 'epic'. It's no wonder this third album has been four years in the making and demanded a change of sound. Yet in the process, Welch has lost everything that made her unique. 'How Big How Blue How Beautiful' sounds empty.
To find this new sound, Welch has employed producer Markus Dravs, whose work includes Björk's seminal 'Homogenic', as well as the likes of Arcade Fire and Coldplay. Anyone hoping the album may reach these dizzying heights will be disappointed.
With Welch becoming a festival favourite, this new album aims to replicate that live sound. The predominant instrumentation is a typical rock band set-up, with the odd smattering of glittering percussion and horns - Fleetwood Mac are an obvious influence. Fittingly, Welch's vocal is often deeper and punchier. At times the album sounds evocative and cinematic: the lengthy title track for instance and its extended brass outro, or the shifting sounds of lead single What Kind Of Man. On ballads like Various Storms & Saints or the bluesy Long & Lost, her voice is gentler above sultry guitar and strings. Tracks like this stand out above generic indie rock fair like Ship To Wreck or Caught, or the meandering atmosphere of St Jude. At least Mother ends the album on a stand-out psychedelic note, but this is overall a raw, rock-inspired album that sounds more American than British. There's not a harp to be heard.
There's only so much a producer can do, however. The songwriting just isn't good enough, with much of the album passing by without leaving an impression. It seems that Welch has forgotten how to write melody over the last four years; as such this third album is lacking the anthems she's known for. She tries on Third Eye, but it's no Dog Days Are Over. This might be acceptable if the album were more intimate or personal, but lyrically this is the usual lofty rubbish with a sound that's different but no less expansive. In trying to reach new heights, Welch has her head up in the clouds.
How big, how blue, how disappointing.
* What Kind Of Man
* Long & Lost
Listen: 'How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful' is available now.