If later this year fiery-haired and fiery-voiced singer Florence Welch announced that she was a vampire, I don't think I'd even blink. Listening to the lyrics on her band's second album, Ceremonials, she sounds very much like a creature of the twilight, someone forever trapped in that space between light and dark, between life and death. (And her band did make a contribution to The Twilight Saga: Eclipse soundtrack in 2010.)
Here, gothic meets gospel in "love" songs populated by ghosts and demons, holy water and prayers, suicide and eternal damnation. In the album's liner notes, Florence gives us a revealing glimpse at what she's trying to accomplish musically. "I'm attracted to the idea of drowning," she says matter-of-factly. "Or rather the idea of jumping off and being enveloped by something, not bad or good, just enveloping. When I was a kid, I had a moment when I got under the water, lying on the pool floor, and felt I could breathe. I've been trying to recreate that feeling ever since."
She compares her British alt-rock-meets-theatrical-drama offerings—which frequently evoke the sound and soul of fellow Brits Adele and Annie Lennox—to a spiritual rite. "The music is so euphoric," she says, "as a way of battling the words. It's like an exorcism, beating it out with drums, shake this demon out, it's so visceral because the melancholy has to be drummed out. I can't let it sit inside me."
Offering a distant echo of Romans 8:22-27, "All This and Heaven Too" rightly describes our hearts as mysterious organs of such depth and complexity that we struggle at times to articulate what lies within them. "And the heart is hard to translate," Florence sings, "It has a language of its own/It talks in tongues and quiet sighs/And prayers and proclamations." Later, she admits, "But with all my education/I can't seem to command it."
On "Shake It Out," Florence sings of being tormented by demons—whether literal or metaphorical isn't quite clear—that she'd rather be rid of: "Shake it out/ … It's hard to dance with the devil on your back/So shake him off." She also intuitively understands her need for her heart to be renewed—even if she uses a drastic metaphor to illustrate that realization: "And I am done with my graceless heart/So tonight I'm going to cut it out and then restart."
"No Light, No Light" finds her pleading, "I was disappearing in plain sight/Heaven help me, I need to make it right." And on "Heartline," there's this confession: "Your heart is the only place that I call home."
Exploring the drowning theme Florence obsesses over, two songs in a row seem to be about giving up and letting it all go in a watery grave. On "What the Water Gave Me," we hear, "The bargain must be made/But oh, my love, don't forget me/But I let the water take me/Lay me down/Let the only sound/Be the overflow/Pockets full of stones."
That's followed by "Never Let Me Go," where we hear these quiet reflections from someone who's in the process of drifting to the bottom of the ocean: "Looking up from underneath/Fractured moonlight on the sea/Reflections still look the same to me/As before I went under/And it's peaceful in the deep/Cathedral where you cannot breathe/No need to pray, no need to speak/ … A thousand miles to the sea bed/I found the place to rest my head." A momentary second thought comes in the line, "It's the only way I can escape/It seems a heavy choice to make." Still, she concludes, "Now I am under/ … And it's so good/And I'm goin' under/But I'm not giving up/I'm just giving in."
"Spectrum" reads, "And when we come back we'll be dressed in black/And you'll scream our names aloud/And we won't eat and we won't sleep/We'll drag bodies from their graves."
On "Lover to Lover," we meet a woman who concludes that her life of lust and self-deception ("Going from road to road, bed to bed, lover to lover") can only end in spiritual damnation ("I believe/I believe/There's no salvation for me now/No space among the clouds/And I've seen that I'm heading down). Then she insists, "But that's alright."
Evil spirits infest "Seven Devils," and it seems they've possessed a woman. "Holy water cannot help you now/See, I've had to burn your kingdom down/ … Seven devils all around you/Seven devils in my house/See, they were there when I woke up this morning/I'll be dead before the day is done." "Breaking Down" tells of a woman haunted by either severe mental illness or a literal tormenting spirit who joins her when she sleeps. "Heartlines" references animal sacrifice and the practice of reading an animal's entrails, as well as palm reading.
Florence and her Machine are fascinated with some pretty dark stuff. Death. Demons. Damnation. Her two deeply poetic songs detailing the "beautiful" release of suicide by way of drowning are among the more problematically suggestive I've encountered in a long time.
I suspect Miss Welch would be aghast at my suggestion that she's actually encouraging any of her fans to end it all. In fact, she recently told Rolling Stone that she's "terrified of death." Then she added, "There's a lot that's heavenly, hellish, pagan and reverential in my music, but the truth is that I think death is probably endless nothingness, disappearing into the void. And I don't want that." Those sentiments, however, don't keep her from romanticizing death and suicide. And that can be very dangerous territory—even (and possibly especially)—when it's wrapped in artistic expression.
In the end, Florence's own words on the subject carry infinitely more weight than mine, so I'll end with them:
"The arms of the ocean are carrying me,
And honest devotion was rushing out of me,
And the crushes of heaven, for a sinner like me,
But the arms of the ocean delivered me.
"Though the pressure's hard to take,
It's the only way I can escape,
So cold, but so sweet."