“Choreomania,” the title of the third track on UK baroque pop institution Florence + The Machine’s latest project comes from a kind of medieval mass hysteria known as the “dancing plague,” in which people would sometimes literally dance themselves to death. Over a decade into a storied career, and frontwoman Florence Welch’s latest set of tracks finds her seemingly cautious about becoming so attached to her career that she suffers a similar fate, forgetting to do anything else. Written and produced alongside the omnipresent Jack Antonoff and Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley, Dance Fever is split between theatrical power-pop balladry that resides alongside their most memorable tracks and quieter, semi-unstructured moments where Welch offers some musings on grappling with her artistry and the confusion of the world at large. While quite a few of the more minimal tracks here don’t evoke the same visceral feeling as much of the band’s past work, the musical high points and the lyricism across the board make this one another solid addition to their catalogue.
The album opens with its best and perhaps its most emotional song, “King.” When a singer has the natural vocal gravitas of a Florence Welch, all an instrumental really needs is a driving bassline and a simple yet huge and echoing drumbeat – she fills out the rest with ease. Welch finds herself torn between two life paths, weighing the pros and cons of continuing her tiresome but passion-fuelling career as usual or stepping away from it all and becoming a mother. Her lyrics are at their most poetic here, describing the drama of the swords and crowns that inspire her work that simply aren’t present with a domestic lifestyle but simultaneously worrying that she’s running out of time. The bridge is made up of a cathartic, harmonized scream of rage and transitions into a silent, near-whisper of an outro as she somewhat reluctantly submits to the pull of the stage. The track “Free,” on the other hand, feels like a clash between Welch and Antonoff’s styles. You can almost picture Antonoff jumping around wildly strumming his guitar as the tempo is kicked into the stratosphere, but as Welch gets deeply candid about mental health issues that landed her in the hospital, not only does the cheery, overwhelming backdrop feel like an odd choice, but it actually threatens to drown out such an incredible vocalist at times as she sinks back into the mix.
Although it comes with another instrumental from Antonoff that feels a little cluttered as distorted sounds fade in and out indiscriminately, the track “Choreomania” contains another great vocal performance from Welch and the aforementioned fascinating concept that she now applies to her own life. Welch might truly have one of the most distinct and recognizable voices in the industry, and the little trills and moments of vibrato that come out fully in this track are what gives her that magic. The observation in the bridge that those complaining that rock is dead are only upset because it hasn’t been “resurrected in their image” should stand out as one of the best lyrics of the year, as well. The transition into “Back in Town” makes it feel almost like an echoing aftermath to its predecessor, with a highly minimalistic instrumental that definitely highlights Welch’s stunning voice but lets things drag on a little – especially when we know the energy the band is capable of. “Girls Against God” is a darkly funny pandemic anthem with backing vocals from the equally capable Maggie Rogers, as the two unite to shoot threats at the man upstairs for taking away the fun of dance clubs and concert halls. Over delicate but warm acoustics and Antonoffian brass bubbling under the surface, Welch’s melodramatic sigh as she reminisces on the good times without an idea of when they’d return feels very earned.
The last time we heard from the band was when they contributed a song to the Cruella soundtrack, and “Dream Girl Evil” feels like it could have come from the same session as Welch leans into both the extreme good and extreme bad images people have of her that come with being a prominent female figure. The instrumental leans a little more to the sinister side with drum rolls and jazzy syncopation, Welch’s voice descending into a croak at times – it’s one of the tracks here where being thrust into the court of public opinion sways her more to the side of wanting to give it all up. The whispery interlude “Prayer Factory” continues the ominous vibes, before “Cassandra” finds her examining the other side of the matter. Stepping into the role of a mythological woman who foretold the future and was ridiculed, Welch draws comparisons to the pandemic stripping away her job, and her ability to prognosticate and provide insight with her lyrics. Of course, feeling powerless when unable to work at her chosen career is also part of the problem she sings about elsewhere. While we don’t tread much new musical ground here, Welch’s ghostly falsetto wails and a spoken-word section that sounds like it comes from an emotionally charged 50s movie elevate the stakes. After another folksy, cultlike drum circle of an interlude on “Heaven is Here,” “Daffodil” gets intense as the band ventures into an almost southern rock territory with some minor-key acoustics. The track builds up to a horror movie sound palate of COVID anxiety, with striking high notes, relentless drums and an eerie escalating tone.
The project winds down with some more top-notch moments. Single “My Love” feels the most reminiscent of the time when she was regarded as more of a major pop star, feeling like a modern update of the EDM boom with a bit of a funkier twist to go alongside the soaring, anthemic chorus. The added complexity of the instrumental with each chorus builds up to a final one that brings out the need for dance fever more than anything else here. The acoustics and piano of “The Bomb” provide space for another great vocal performance and lyrical revelation, as Welch wonders if she wants to be in a relationship for the relationship or for the songwriting opportunities the messy bits provide. “Morning Elvis” is a final personal moment as Welch offers some confessions about her alcoholism after missing a planned trip to Graceland. Confiding in The King himself, right up to the point where she imagines her own life taking a similarly fatal turn, it’s a powerful final stamp on Welch’s discussions of the balancing act between fame and real life.
While many regard Florence Welch as one of the best singers we have, what Dance Fever succeeds at the most is proving that she’s an equally powerful songwriter. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to set the pen in motion, and a couple of these tracks should stand up as some of the best the year had to offer.
Favourite Tracks: King, My Love, Dream Girl Evil, Daffodil, Girls Against God
Least Favourite Track: Free