New Music Discovery of the Week: Florence + the Machine "Free"

This week’s ALT 104.5 New Music Discovery Of The Week is “Free” by Florence + the Machine

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More on Florence + the Machine:

With any event in life, there is a before and after. Before grief, birth, love. Before a global pandemic when it (still) feels like nothing will ever be the same again. For every artist, there is the quandary of what happens to their work when there is massive interruption to it. Abandon it, or keep going? Finish what was started in the ‘before’, knowing that it may not be relevant, or even make sense in the ‘after’. All of us tried to survive, keep others safe, to recalibrate the worn routines of work and life. The job of the artist is to create, write, sing, even if the process is plagued by uncertainty and distraction. The end result – and the medium of the album itself - is shaken to the core, forever rearranged. 


What can the artist do when presented with this sudden disruption… this strange new world? 


Move towards it, make a new world. Create a fable. 


The music of Dance Fever are songs sung back to the sadness of the world since March 2020. A narrative of movement and resurrection; interiority and a longing to be with others, of folklore and horror. A story of metamorphosis, of an idea that starts as one thing and then transforms – in spite of everything – into something new. 


This is a fairytale in flux, one whose ending is still uncertain, but there is much to comfort and distract us until then. 


The performer and the song circle each other, questioning their mutual relationship, each engaged in their own quest. The performer wonders if she will ever be on stage again, and the song itself deserts her, leaving the performer to wonder who she is without it 


In early 2020 Florence Welch was in New York and began recording the bones of a new album with producer Jack Antonoff. Barely one week in, the world shut down, and Welch was forced to return early to London. The songs were rooted in energy and liveness but as venues closed and studios shut, it was clear the songs – and the very process of making them – would have to change. With Antonoff in New York, and Florence in England, it became increasingly difficult to create across the divide so the singer decided to reach out to another singer/producer a little closer to home in addition to Jack's work on the record whose performing life had also been halted by the pandemic: Dave Bayley of Glass Animals, a musician and producer who started out as a DJ. Welch conjured up what she missed – clubs, dancing at festivals, being in the whirl of movement and togetherness, and slowly this crept on to the record. “Me and Dave really bonded over our need for intensity at that time, any kind of release, and with his love of synths and my fascination with all things gothic and creepy, our own sound started to emerge.” 


She read about the concept of choreomania, a group ritual of dancing to exhaustion, and in one case, of 400 women who danced themselves to the death in the middle ages. That kind of ecstasy, proximity, euphoria at the possibilities of movement served as a reminder of the loss of performance and dancing in clubs. Welch had written My Love in her kitchen as a “sad little poem”, and when she recorded it acoustically it just didn’t seem to work. Bayley suggested using synths and it soon expanded with floor-filling, chest-thumping energy. But there is something more in those beats than the loss of performance. Welch says she was heartbroken over not being able to see or hug her young niece, and the combined loss of these two sources of love was painful. Initially, she worried that it might be a conflict to pair such lyrical sadness with an upbeat tune, but realised that when she’d listened to it at home, alone, it was exactly what she needed – and that “maybe other people would need it too”. 


The record is “almost an analysis and breakdown of dance itself.” In the past, dancing carried Welch through sobriety and recovery and she learnt technical dance, which changed her outlook as a performer. In these current times of torpor and confinement, dance offered propulsion, energy and a way of looking music more choreographically.  


Between geography and necessity, the album inevitably transformed into something else and it arrived, as Welch says, “despite my protestations”. It’s not just the poking sly fun at her own self-created persona, or the blend of styles — dance, folk, 70’s Iggy, longing-for-road folk tracks that nod to Lucinda Williams or Emmylou Harris (‘Girls Against God’, ‘The Bomb’) — that’s unexpected, but the breath of influences beyond music: film, art and literature. The tragic heroines of pre-Raphaelite art, the gothic short stories of Carmen Maria Machado, and Julia Armfield, the visceral wave of folk horror film from The Wickerman and The Witch to Midsommar. Welch admits she wasn’t much of “a horror aficionado”, but during lockdown, with all its own fears and anxiety, the genre became a poultice, drawing out the sadness and mirroring the sense of threat in the world. Horror manifests itself throughout as a kind of possession; that feeling that there is nothing more terrifying than things that are out of our control. A recurrent motif on Dance Fever is devils and angels, biblical concepts of good and bad. In the past - in her life, and in her work - Welch felt pressure to please everyone, to be “the good girl”. This record, and everything that has happened in the last two years, offered a chance to invert this. Channeling the malevolence of horror became a way to flip the old angelic transcendence into “a darker thing”. Welch says that it’s also an acknowledgment of feeling scared, “and that one way to resolve this is making yourself scary”. The singer’s voice has grown in strength and timbre, moving from the playful ‘Free’ to the husky depths of ‘Dream Girl Evil’. There are totemic nods to musicians she listened to in lockdown, notably Iggy Pop’s baritone mantra. When this homage creature voice appears on ‘Restraint’, it reminds us that something is coming for us, and encroaching domesticity is wrestled with on many tracks. 


But there is something else at stake. Being a woman artist, and one who performs provides its own conflict. How to thrive and continue along the same path that male artists – Welch mentions Nick Cave, Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger – whose stars keep ascending, whose path to success is unimpeded by biology. In her mid-30s, these are the contradictions Welch is grappling with. “I never actually thought about my gender that much. I just got on with it. I was as good as the men and I just went out there and matched them every time. But now, thinking about being a woman in my 30s and the future… I suddenly feel this tearing of my identity and my desires. That to be a performer, but also to want a family might not be as simple for me as it is for my male counterparts. I had modelled myself almost exclusively on male performers, and for the first time I felt a wall come down between me and my idols as I have to make decisions they did not.” 


This concern is also at the centre of the album’s duality – there are frequent references to a splitting of the self, being torn in two, good and bad, devil and angel. An overriding sense of being pulled towards opposing forces. Coupled with the undercurrent of folklore, it enhances its fable-like quality. At times, there are multiple layers of voices, a sort of choral possession, as the only possible way to tell an urgent story. This duality echoes again on ‘King’, as Welch declares, “I am no mother, I am no bride, I am King”. What if the king of rock is not a man - one who became such a myth, broken by his own mythology – but a woman, who is keen to cast off hers and reign for years to come? 


It felt liberating to embody a darker entity, often using the song as character, allowing it to speak for itself. For Welch, “the songs know, they always speak truthfully”, and all the panic and breathlessness of ‘Choreomania’ came to her - almost prophetically - before Covid, “the arc of the record is a kind of ‘be careful what you wish for’ fairytale, I wished that the monster of performance would let me go, and then it did, and then I spend the rest of the record begging it to take me back.” 


Dance Fever might have started out as an album destined for fields and stages, but it worked within its own chrysalis, shapeshifting into a new creature. Life sometimes forces our hand, or things just don’t pan out the way we want. But out of this, comes a wondering and transcendence; a desire to pick up the remaining pieces and see what can be built. As Welch sings on ‘Girls Against God’: I met the devil / You know he gave me a choice /A golden heart or a / Golden voice. Sometimes you get neither. Sometimes you get both. It’s what you do with them – if you build, sing, dance – that counts. 


Sinéad Gleeson, 2022 


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