I remember finding myself in the local F.Y.E. on the evening of June 25, 2009. I was there for a new pair of headphones, but I remember the store manager looking at the then meager Michael Jackson section of the store and talking on the phone to (I assume) her higher-ups, saying, “Get me as much as you can, especially of the Greatest Hits”. For about a month after Jackson’s death, it seemed as if the King of Pop took back over: he was on blogs, VH1/MTV, radio stations, iTunes, and Billboard were all haunted by his ghost.
What I’m saying is July 6, 2009 might have been the worst day ever to release your debut album.
But thankfully, Lungs proved to be a grower. “Dog Days are Over” was a powerful single (a performance at the 2010 VMAs is frequently cited as the moment Florence broke in America), and people who gave Lungs a chance found a great album that played to the outer reaches. Filled with dark imagery, swirling production, and singer Florence Welch’s powerhouse vocals, the group’s debut caught on, and prompted a second album a mere two years later.
For however big Lungs was, Ceremonials manages to swallow it whole. Opener “Only If For a Night” is led by a somber piano part and clattering drums, and adorned with strings and harps, but truly takes off thanks to Welch, who sounds more confident and honed throughout the album. Second single “Shake It Out” is nothing short of euphoric, and possibly features Welch’s best vocal performance. The song has an undeniably anthemic feel, and refuses to be played quietly. And it’s only the second song.
Across the next 10 (or 14, if you got the deluxe edition) songs, Welch and company seldom let up. “What the Water Gave Me” is the album’s longest track at five and a half minutes, while the briefest song “Breaking Down” clocks in at 3:49. Like Ceremonials as a whole, “Water” threatens to fall apart under its own size, but the arrangements from producer Paul Epworth grow, change, and develop, always making things interesting. The song mixes and matches post-punk instrumentals with a choir with what could pass as a gospel hymn, and somehow doesn’t sink. “Breaking Down”, meanwhile, takes a few listens to adjust to, but the song’s poppy take on melancholy eventually wins out.
What makes Ceremonials exciting is that it doesn’t feel like listening to the same song 12 times over. There’s something primal about the percussion heavy “Heartlines”, while “Lover to Lover” has a funky piano part that breaks into full-blown soul at the chorus. It’s hard to settle on a definitive best song, but “No Light, No Light” makes one compelling argument. Welch sounds as poised as she does on “Shake It Out”, but the euphoria’s replaced with passion, and band behind her whip themselves into a frenzy that’s nearly unstoppable. The only time Ceremonials doesn’t work to the fullest is on “Seven Devils”, which sounds a little too stock-character gothic.
One thing that Lungs had that Ceremonials doesn’t is a bit of diversity. You won’t hear “Kiss With a Fist 2” on this album, nor anything quite as bluesy as “Girl With One Eye”, but at this point, that’s for the better. Not to discredit either of those songs (“Kiss With a Fist” still stands as a band highlight), but they wouldn’t fit with the sound that Florence has developed by now. Besides, their sentiments aren’t missing: “Lover to Lover” has fun, and closer “Leave My Body” has a blues/gospel bend.
Very few groups nail their sound as early in the game as Florence and the Machine does on Ceremonials. Welch’s penchant for dark and romantic lyrics is still alive and well, and her vocals here never sound like she’s showing off, but rather that she couldn’t sing any other way. In a way, the album reminds me of Arcade Fire’s Funeral: filled to the brim with huge sounds, but a huge heart as well. You might not be able to relate to what Welch is singing about, but the music pulls you to something regardless. It may take a few listens to fully get involved, but Ceremonials delivers: five out of five stars.
tl;dr: Massive in all the best ways, 5/5.