Over the course of Florence + The Machine’s third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, she mentions the Virgin Mary, Persephone, Motown’s Delilah, Jonah and St. Jude, but Catholicism and mythology are very small influences compared to the worst thing in the world, which is what the album is truly about: heartbreak. Rather than being an album about celebrating those she references, she pretends to be these, shall we say, characters, and injects their hearts with poison. And not one that kills you quickly. No, it takes 18 songs and 1.3 hours (for the Target edition) to kill you. Of course, it won’t kill everyone. If you’re going through a break up right now, it’ll either prompt you to commit suicide or become a comforting friend to whom you can relate. And if you’re not currently cursing fate for torching you heart, then you might ignore much of the lyrics and simply find it to be a perfectly melodious record of the addictive nature. Speaking of potentially addictive things, if you do pay attention to the lyrics, you’ll probably need a benzo or two by the time the album is over.
The truth is that just about anyone could get hooked on songs like “Mother” and “Ship To Wreck.” This is “art pop,” but it’s still pop. And Florence’s first two albums, 2009’s Lungs and 2011’s Ceremonials, were both hits of the mainstream nature, so she had a choice: go big or go home. To that end, it only takes a single listen to realize which option she chose, HBHBHB being a monster of an album, a grandiose beast that lives whenever you listen to the record. It’s one of those magnificent albums where you feel like you’re listening to the music being performed right in front of you whenever you play it, something Florence and producer Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sonss) were clearly going for. However, it might not be immediately accessible. Yes, you can tell it lives up to its title — even if that’s not why she titled it such — with a sole listening, but to truly reap its riches, it takes at least a few plays for all of the songs to reveal their originality; there’s a sameness to the most boisterous and high-pitched tracks upon first listen.
Of course, the album opens with one of its immediately catchy tracks, “Ship To Wreck,” which finds Florence in a self-loathing mood, wondering aloud, “Did I drink too much / Am I losing touch / Did I build the ship to wreck.” She’s looking for answers — is it her own fault the relationship is over? — but she’s also so vulnerable that she obviously wouldn’t be able to handle it if she received them. On the next track, “What Kind Of Man,” which starts off subtly but turns furious with thunderous drums after she begs, “What kind of man loves like this?” But you’ll be able to cast aside any self-pity you might think she’s indulging because you’ll be too busy fist-pumping. It also has a certain sing-song quality to the chorus, which should have people lining up to sing it at karaoke, though they’re sure to discover that they don’t have the heavy pipes to do it justice. Sometimes one even wonders if Florence has the pipes, during choruses where her vocals have been layered and layered. But it sounds tremendous, so who really cares?
“Queen Of Peace” comes on gently with organ followed by sweeping strings, though a persistent beat soon follows and grows in intensity as the song progresses. “Now you have me on the run / The damage is already done / C’mon is this what you want / ‘Cause you’re driving me away,” she sings like Alanis Morissette might sound after having her vocal chords pumped up with cortisone injections. For a “queen of peace,” she sounds like she’s ready to go to war.
War — that’s what the album boils down to. That point where your heartache is so strong that you’re at war with whoever left you broken and at war at yourself for whatever part you may have played in the relationship ending. This time around she’s less about shaking it out and more about blowing it the fuck up.