October 21 2017

“Let Loss Reveal It”: Florence + the Machine’s New Album Reflects on the Meaning and Beauty of Pain

by Brandy Daniels, Vanderbilt University

Still from Florence + the Machine's music video, "How Big How Blue How Beautiful." Florence Welch in white raising hands to sky.

A Personal Preface

I’ve been slow to listen to Florence + the Machine’s newest album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, which is rather odd given that I’m a long-time fan, and thus have waited in patient, eager anticipating for over three years for new material from the fiery musician who so many, myself included, see as  "flamboyantly imaginative" and "captivating," whose “exceptional sense of melody” produces songs that “let her show off with grand, arching vocal lines, leaping deftly across her registers.” As I’ve often said about another of my favorite musicians, Karen Berquist of Over the Rhine, Florence too sings like she’s having an orgasm. How could one not be captivated?

Yet, when I first heard “What Kind of Man?,” the first single from the new album, soon after it was released in February, I was disappointed. It’s blues-pop vibe just didn’t jive with me—or, rather, it just hit the wrong note, evoking more of a feeling of post-coital ambivalence and regret then of orgasmic release. I’d recently been through a tough breakup of my own, and wanted the melancholic, abstracting Florence of “What the Water Gave Me” and “Breaking Down” or, even better, the melodic Florence of “Dog Days are Over” and “Shake it Out:” the Florence of upbeat, empowering hopefulness. I was looking for the blues without the pop, or even the pop after the blues. But not both together.

When I finally did get around to listening to the album, after it was fully released (and when my own rough breakup was no longer so fresh), I realized a few things, three of which stand out:

  1. I shouldn’t have turned away so quickly. Though it too shirks simplicity and emotional clarity, “Saint Jude,” the second release from the album,  has become an anthem of sorts for me…
     
  2. Relatedly, I really should’ve just trusted Florence and what she was doing in the album before tabling it after one song. Or, at the very least, I should’ve looked into it more. Hell, the whole album is about a breakup. Maybe “What Kind of Man?,” with its particularly bluesy-pop tune and the mordant inquiry serving as its choral centerpiece and title, was the first release for a reason. And turns out, it was, and not just the song the producers thought would be most popular/sell best. The music video for the song is “Chapter 1” of a short film Florence has created—a series of music videos (so far there are five “chapters”) she’s weaved together to tell a story, dubbed The Odyssey.
     
  3. Finally, and most significantly, I realized that the things that I initially disliked about “What Kind of Man?” on my first few listens are not only pervasive throughout the album, but are precisely what makes the album so powerful and moving, and, I’d suggest, what makes the album particularly relevant to folks in religion….The difficult juxtaposition of negative and positive, of suffering and pain and anger alongside joy and meaning and… life.

Give that I am not a musician—like, not in the slightest. I took piano lessons for six years as a child and could barely play hot cross buns by the end of them. Seriously.—and thus not quite qualified as a music reviewer, I want to spend the time/space I have left teasing out some of these themes I see in the album that I think makit it relevant to and important for scholars in religious studies.

Embrace rather then escape

A Spin Magazine review of the album recounts a statement Welch made about the new album in relation to its predecessor. Describing the end of her last tour as a “sort of a crash landing,” Florence explains that “I guess although I’ve always dealt in fantasy and metaphor when I came to writing, that meant the songs this time were dealing much more in reality. Ceremonials was so fixated on death and water, and the idea of escape or transcendence through death, but the new album became about trying to learn how live, and how to love in the world rather than trying to escape from it. Which is frightening because I’m not hiding behind anything but it felt like something I had to do.”

The blues-pop vibe of the new album took on a new valence for me when seen in that light (which, given my own post-breakup recovery, was particularly illuminating and suddenly quite cathartic). And the album very much functions as an epic tale, Florence on a quest to embrace life in the midst of pain, taking us along for the ride—an Odyssey indeed. In fact, in a press release after Chapter 2 (St. Jude) was released, the director Vincent Haycock explains that the film is “obviously about relationships, but it’s also about Florence traveling through our version of the Divine Comedy.” The first two releases—“What Kind of Man?” and “Saint Jude”—marking “the first layer of Hell.” Though, as Flo makes clear through the narrative of the album, the process of embrace is tortuous—and, at times, quite torturous.

Nuance in and through the extremes

Florence demonstrates in this album that this journey of learning how to live through pain, rather then escape it, is precisely that—a journey. And not necessarily a linear one. In a culture where grief is supposed to be rather quick, aided by the bevy of “healthy coping mechanisms” at our disposal—yoga, meditation, exercise, carefree time with friends—Flo paints a far more complicated, and thus far more real, picture of the mess of life. From contemplating her own destructive habits—asking, “Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch?” in “Ship to Wreck,” to admitting “taking the pills just to pass the time, I can never say no” in “Delilah”—to reflecting on the complexities of desire, fault, and forgiveness— i.e. “Strung up, strung out for your love… I wrung and ringing out, why can’t you let me know” (Delilah), “You got a hold on me, and I don’t know how I don’t just stand outside and scream. I am teaching myself how to be free” (Various Storms and Saints)—this album points not only to how life, and the relationships that make up life (romantic and otherwise, even the relationship we have with ourselves) is itself complicated, but how navigating all of it is messy too.

One critical review of the record argued that the album is “too overblown and daft for the songs to have the desired emotional impact: it’s never really intimate enough for the feelings Welch expresses to connect.” I think this review misses the mark, in that I read, and find, the intimacy and poignancy precisely in the “overblown and daft” aspects of the album, and especially in their juxtaposition. In the extreme combined with the informal, the showy with the simple, the blues with the pop, and in casting herself as both saint and storm (Saint Jude), Florence reminds us that neither the journey nor the destination are clear of fog.

The nuance in, and power of, (sharing) pain and the personal

Many of the pieces written about How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (including many of the ones I link to in this essay) have pointed out how this album is far more personal, far less abstract, then any of Florence’s previous work. [[Sidenote: Apparently Welch’ credits her decision to put her own experiences into songs, to get personal in her lyrics, to her friend, Taylor Swift. “Taylor said that you must sing about what’s happening in your life,” Welch explains, recounting the advice. As a pretty avid Swift fan, this felt important to include here.]]

This turn to the personal resonated with Florence’s listeners, at least with some of her reviewers, who’ve suggested that the “payoff is immediately audible” on the new record. As Helen Brown of The Daily Telegraph so aptly puts it: “Florence Welch has been through a break-up and a breakdown since the release of her second album, Ceremonials, in 2011. But the 28-year-old art history professor’s daughter has turned her turmoil into a powerful record, adding a new spiritual depth and mature awareness to the thrill of the wild emotions she has always been able to pump so fearlessly out of her mighty heart and lungs.” One could speculate that her fans agree—this is the band’s first album to reach number one on the US Billboard 200.

When asked about the personal nature of this album, Welch explained that, while it is largely about a breakup, its not “a breakup record;” rather, she explains, “it was much more about trying to understand myself.” Her comment, along with the album’s ethos of embrace rather than escape, reminded me of what feminist theologian Wendy Farley says about pain. In Gathering Those Driven Away, Farley writes:

For me, the genesis of theology is pain. When my heart is broken, I expect theology to walk with me… Theology is an academic discipline, a handmaid of the church, a doctrinal tradition. But it is also sapientia. It is longing for wisdom: pain seeking understanding. I do not find theology consoling because it provides me with correct answers. This is impossible and not even to be desired. Correct answers, even imagining there were such things, could help only the thinnest strand of mind. It might satisfy certain aspects of discursive reasoning, but that is neither bread nor roses for the suffering heart. Theology is a practice that uses words and ideas, books and concepts to throw one’s mind and heart toward the eternally Erotic Abyss that is our hearts desire (1-2).

In How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Florence seems to artistically capture, embody, and reflect precisely what Farley finds in theology. I wonder if Farley might go so far as to call the album itself theological? Based on her account of what theology is and does, I certainly would.

Meaning—even joy—through suffering

“Don’t make the mountain your enemy, get out, get up there instead….You’ll find a rooftop to sing from, or find a hallway to dance. You don’t need no edge to cling from, your heart is there, it’s in your hands… But you still stumble, feet give way. Outside the world seems a violent place… While all around you the buildings sway, you sing it out loud, ‘who made it this way?’ I know you’re bleeding, but you’ll be okay. Hold on to your heart, you’ll keep it safe. Hold on to you.” – Various Storms & Saints

 “Even though I’m grieving, I’m trying to find the meaning. Let loss reveal it. Let loss reveal it.” – Saint Jude

During the week I was listening to How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, on constant repeat on my iPhone while I explored the city I had just moved to (which happens to be New York City, which is thus to say, I had a lot to explore and thus a lot of listening time), a cover story profiling Stephen Colbert began making its rounds on my Facebook news feed. While much of the story focused on Colbert’s transition from The Colbert Report to The Late Show and all the challenges and changes that came with the move, it also chronicled some key moments that have shaped Colbert. Turning to Colbert’s youth, the author recounts how Colbert’s father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash when he was ten, and wonders “how it could possibly be that he suffered the loss he’s suffered and somehow arrived here.” The story offers a variety of answers and explanations, family and faith key among them. What struck me was Colbert’s own musings on the matter, his avowed acceptance of suffering and how that has formed him. Recalling an earlier point in the interview where he talked about how improv taught him to “love the bomb”—to actually “love when you're failing” because “the embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you”—Colbert muses:  

Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

To love the things we most wish hadn’t happened. The insight Colbert offers through his own narrative of loss is, I’d suggest, the same narrative guiding How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, a narrative that, for scholars like Farley, guides theology (and certainly could be read many a time over within sacred texts of many religious traditions). Florence’s new album reveals, and thus reminds us, of this difficult truth, and of the possibilities and joys that it can engender.


Brandy Daniels is a PhD candidate in Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University, currently living in Manhattan where she is working on her dissertation: an eschatological critique of contemporary theological methodological accounts of formation (and their undergirding anthropological assumptions) informed by queer-feminist theories. You can find her on Twitter @brandy_daniels, and read more from her at womenintheology.org

 

Header image from Florence + the Machine's music video from "How Big How Blue How Beautiful."