Florence Welch is undoubtedly one of the most evocative songwriters of the past decade.
On her past four albums with her band, The Machine, Welch has steadily elevated her arty pop-rock, from the primal pounding of “Dog Days are Over” from 2009 debut album “Lungs” to the deeply personal revelations nestled in 2018’s “High As Hope” album.
Recorded in London as the pandemic raged around her, the album zigzags from idiosyncratic (“Heaven is Here”) to thoroughly unfettered pop-rock (“Free”) with some spoken word tossed in for additional eccentricity (“Choreomania,” named for the Renaissance-era phenomenon where groups of people would dance themselves to hysteric exhaustion).
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Welch has stated that “Dance Fever” – a title that sounds like the modern-day companion to The Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack – was born out of her longing for togetherness during lockdowns.
Her mental jumble of anguish relieved by the power of music is encapsulated in the jittery “Free” as she sings in her throaty voice, “I’m always running from something/ I push it back, but it keeps on coming/ And being clever never got me very far/ Because it’s all in my head.” (The video, with British actor Bill Nighy playing the personification of her anxiety, was filmed in the Ukraine in November.)
A sublime vocalist, Welch can seemingly effortlessly shift from injecting choral overlays in “Back in Town” to crooning a folksy shuffle (“The Bomb”). Equally chameleonic is her segue from the disco popper “My Love” – a highlight among the 14 tracks – to “Restraint,” a 48-second collection of croaks and gasps.
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Her lyrical prose requires several listens to extract the nuances, but she’s at her most definitive in “King.” With a locomotive snare and bass drum powering the song, Welch decries labels such as “mother” and “bride” as she wonders why women always have to suffer for their art. Her determination? “I am king.”
Welch wraps the album with “Morning Elvis,” a wrenching reflection of her drinking days (she’s been sober since 2014) when, severely hungover, she missed a flight to Memphis with the band. “The bathroom towels were cool against my head/ I pressed my forehead to the floor and prayed for a trapdoor/ I’ve been here many times before/ But I’ve never made it to Graceland,” she sings as guitars seesaw woozily in the background, creating the sound of disorientation.
It isn’t the most uplifting ending to an album, but so what? It’s Welch’s story to tell and we are her captivated students.
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