Florence and the Machine — Ceremonials

Island | discogs.com
Thunderous, earth-shattering goth pop, courtesy of everyone's favourite siren
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Ceremonials was ranked seventh in my Top Ten Albums I Wrote About in 2017, and was awarded the Thorvaldi Thunderbolt for Sturm and Drang
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Somewhere in the multiverse, there is a place where the Twilight franchise is not excrement under the boot of literature. There is a place where its boorish everyteen protagonist combats misfortune and hardship and earns her happy ending, rather than having her dreams presented to her on a silver platter. Bella Swan is the Mariest Sue to ever disgrace the pages of what may charitably be referred to as a narrative — she is unfailingly selfish, and downright rude to any who have the temerity to speak to her, even those prostrate at her ostensibly clumsy feet.

Worlds move around her so that she need not experience the slightest inconvenience, and Bella still summons the wherewithal to whinge that her metaphorical pony is the wrong shade of chestnut.

Florence Welch inspires a similar arrangement. But she was not perched like a doll on a precarious shelf, to be buttressed by continuous undeserved adulation — it is Florence's raw gravitas that keeps her at the centre of her own universe.

"We won't eat and we won't sleep /
We'll drag bodies from their graves /
Say my name /
And every colour illuminates"

Like Bella, everything Florence does is on a grand, cosmic scale. Her steps are a dance, her speech is poetry and her love is ichor in the veins. Ceremonials is a gothic affair, outfitted with crystalline harp, sawing strings, solemn choir and pounding drums that tell majestic, sweeping fables of life and loss. It is only natural that the protagonist be a demigoddess flung from the heavens.

A sharp ear may note that Florence's mythologising hits the same narrative beats as stories propagated by mere mortals, mimicking them, only scaled up a trillionfold. Through Ceremonials and Twilight, she and Bella share the way they see — every moment is earth-shattering, a fulfillment or denial of some arcane prophecy set in motion before the beginning of time.

However, only one of them pulls it off.

When Bella dares to even plan a visit to someone of whom her special and very unique vampire boyfriend is not particularly fond, she finds the latter has thoughtfully made a decision for her and has dismantled her car engine. She is charmed. This scene is played for laughs. If Florence ever found herself the target of such brazen abuse, she would be picking fleshy shrapnel from her dashboard for weeks while sporting a stylish coat fashioned from ivory skin.

Bella is simply ridiculous, pitiable even, were it not for the yawning absence of a single redeeming character trait, or indeed the presence of a single character trait at all. She is singularly uncompelling, a fact thrown into harsh relief by the plodding pace at which she shuffles from scene to scene.

(I do not exaggerate when I say that the first seventy percent of each text is spent spinning wheels and faffing around before some semblance of an actual plot kicks into gear. The films are somewhat successful in their efforts to remedy this, helped along by a magnetically anticharismatic performance astutely, and I hope for her sake, ironically provided by Kristen Stewart.)

Florence is, in the Old Testament sense, awesome. She is a force of nature. She bellows and screams and rages against the dying of the light; a hurricane tearing through a distant land of spirits and demons and wind chimes. In a market saturated with whispery indie songsmiths, it is thrilling to come across an artist more at home in some godforsaken thunderstruck cathedral than a dinky little café, and refreshing too, not least from the constant cooling stream of blood trickling from your eardrums. Such trifles barely register to Florence. When she says she "would give all this / and heaven too," one's thoughts turn to celestial bulldozers, evicted cherubim and golden documents signed and initialed in flame. Her ability is beyond question.

What would be absurd hyperbole in the mouth of anyone else, Florence has always navigated with ease. From her previous record, the aptly-titled Lungs:

"The stars, the moon /
They have all been blown out /
You left me in the dark /
No dawn, no day /
I'm always in this twilight"

To others, the celestial bodies are unfathomable — alien. To Florence, they are marbles in her palm. When upset, her wrath rends the fabric of nature to tatters. Indeed, Lungs stitched together an impressive variety of styles. Florence's first celestial canopy spread itself a little thin between the horizons of indie and pop, but was admirably propped up by her Atlas of a voice. On her next record, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful:

"I can't help but pull the earth around me /
To make my bed"

Note the casual tone with which she tosses away this admission. I was personally underwhelmed by Florence's decision on this album to pare back the epic gothic trappings that I considered central to her music. Of course it is her prerogative to compose and perform as she likes and prune whatever artistic vines she chooses. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful is indeed just as focused a work as Ceremonials, if focused inwards rather than skywards.

(I am heartened by an apparent return to bombastic, orchestral form on a brief jewel of an EP dropped last year. Tallying just three songs recorded for and released alongside Final Fantasy XV, a fleeting but soaring impression remains. Of Florence's discography, this EP most closely resembles her dramatic non-album single 'Breath of Life,' composed for the underwhelming 2012 block-not-quite-buster Snow White and the Huntsman. Starring Kristen Stewart. So the world turns.)

The fact remains that Ceremonials is the most cohesive of Florence's three albums, and the reason is right there in the title — this is a project of pretense and artifice. In order to tell her monumental tales, Florence inhabits a correspondingly outsize character. But there is the rub: Florence is playing a character. Bella is being her deplorable self.

Bella's supernatural romance is presented, with much ado, as the greatest love story of all time. Twilight displays not one iota of self-awareness, tragically cheapening what could have been a fun pulpy romp. Instead, Twilight purports to eclipse such classical romances as Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet, which the reader learns when each title is clumsily shunted sideways into the text by an author who has clearly not read them, since neither is a romance, and both actually warn against the kind of blind infatuation in which Bella so shamelessly indulges.

If any complaint could be levied against Ceremonials, it is that it is too much of a good thing. Florence's thunderous style is captivating to be sure, but braving an hour in a roaring wind tunnel is bound to exhaust. Perhaps Ceremonials is better experienced not as a whole, but shuffled into your library. When juxtaposed against the music of laypersons, Florence can truly shine. After all:

"I don't want your future /
I don't need your past /
One bright moment /
Is all I ask"

And what a moment it could be.