Florence + The Machine
Album: “High as Hope”
“High as Hope” could be seen as Florence Welch’s quarter-life crisis album.
The Florence + the Machine frontwoman has had some ups and downs in the decade since breaking out in 2009 with the debut album “Lungs.” There have been three U.K. chart-topping albums and an acclaimed headlining set at Glastonbury, but also detours into drink and self-doubt.
On “High as Hope,” Welch picks over the traces of her sometimes misspent youth and looks ahead with tentative hope. Lyrically, it’s a delight: reflective, wry and rueful. Musically, it retains the extravagance Welch’s fans love: big hooks embedded in a wall of sound.
Produced chiefly by Welch and Emile Haynie, with contributions from musicians including Sampha, Jamie xx and Tobias Jesso Jr., “High as Hope” cushions Welch’s raw and soaring vocals on a lush bed sound — keyboards, strings, drums, handclaps, the works.
There’s oodles of operatic drama, but the album’s biggest pleasures often come in subtle moments. Opening track “June” begins with a sigh, before swelling in a swirl of strings to an exhortation: “Hold on to each other.”
“Sky Full of Song” pares back the musical shrubbery and lets Welch’s voice convey regret and elation, as she sings “Grab me by the ankles, I’ve been flying for too long.”
The quest for connection with others is a recurring theme. On “Hunger,” another single, Welch alludes to an eating disorder — “At 17, I started to starve myself” — and recounts attempts to banish loneliness with drugs, art and love. The angst is offset by an anthemic chorus.
The album ends on a gentle, ambivalent note with “No Choir,” which suggests Welch has found a measure of peace.
—Jill Lawless, Associated Press
Album: “The Now Now”
Is there really another Gorillaz album out? We were actually still trying to digest last year’s overstuffed “Humanz.” And shouldn’t we be wary of a new release so close to that 26-song project?
After spending time with “The Now Now,” the answer is yes — yes, indeed. The 11-track collection includes some of Gorillaz’s funkiest riffs and also some of the weakest tunes in the band’s catalog.
“The Now Now” has basically two speeds — up-tempo, synth-washed EDM and maudlin, half-thought-out ballads. The band’s signature approach — dizzying levels of collaboration with cool guests — isn’t present here. Other than George Benson, Jamie Principle and Snoop Dogg, the Rolodex is thin.
That thinness isn’t apparent with the album opener, “Humility,” a blissed-out summer jam. Snoop Dogg also returns to Gorillaz for a terrifically slinky portrait of “Hollywood.” And on the high-tempo “Sorcererz,” lead singer Damon Albarn’s vocal effects make him sound like an old blues legend. Another standout is the mostly instrumental “Lake Zurich,” a disco throwback with some of the best cowbell ever recorded in this century. Seriously.
But it’s not clear what the poor state of Idaho did to deserve “Idaho,” a turgid, overwrought mess. “Kansas” seems like it was written in 10 minutes while absentmindedly waiting for a bus, and “Fire Flies” manages to be both clumsy and bland. “One Percent” is virtually unlistenable while “Magic City” is lazy and reveals the limits of Albarn’s natural voice.
Gorillaz manage to right this sinking ship by the last song, “Souk Eye,” which melds a good beat and interesting sonic textures with smoky vocals. Nice, but it’s too late for a messy album.
“The Now Now” will test even die-hard fans and reveal that the endless gimmickry from the so-called world’s first virtual band can eventually grate.
—Mark Kennedy, Associated Press