Thanks to a broken foot suffered while performing during Coachella’s opening weekend in April, Florence Welch has been promoting her third album from a new vantage point: a seat. It’s a jarring image considering Welch tends to indulge in the kind of grand physicality (wild arm-flailing, purposeful pogoing) that matches the high drama of her baroque pop sound.
But having to perch and belt has ironically been the ideal delivery system for the songs of How Big How Blue How Beautiful, Florence + the Machine’s most raw and stripped-down album to date. The fantastical imagery of 2011’s Ceremonials has been largely replaced by direct confessionals about Welch’s heartbreak. And the simple, lovely “Caught” is a prime example: Over a clean piano and guitar and spare percussion, Welch wavers between cooing and bellowing about being “pulled apart against my will.” She’s never shied away from songs about her love life, but both the joy and sorrow on How Big feel more immediate, which in turn make the shifts in sound, subtle as they are, all the more intense, especially on the morphing “Mother.”
This is all relative, of course—it’s not like Florence has suddenly become a minimalist folkie. There are still harps aplenty, and songs like “Ship to Wreck” and “Third Eye” pack the powerhouse vocal wallop she’s known for. But How Big is Welch’s most accomplished album yet, primarily because she doesn’t rely solely on operatics to make herself heard. Welch may have gone slightly smaller with her sound, but her emotional depth and capacity for wonder remain gigantic. A–