When Florence Welch was scudding around media promo for her previous album High as Hope (2018), she said: “I quite like the idea of putting a big, spiritual, unanswerable question in a pop song. Because you might not be able to answer it, but you can dance about it.” For fifth album Dance Fever, she’s taken that idea and spun it into aural gold; the physical expression of investigating these big, spiritual, unanswerable questions becomes the spine of an album that’s like a cumulus-burst of philosophical conversation.
Lead single King draws back the velvet curtain on the kinds of topics we’re talking about here: “I am no mother, I am no bride, I am king,” Welch sings. The identifiers of ‘mother’ and ‘bride’ revolve around things that happen to you as a woman – even, arguably, things that a man or a partner administer upon you. ‘King’, however, is a qualifier that’s only about agency, innate potential, capability, and pre-ordained or inalienable power. Welch delivers the lines like a mist crawling through a deep, dark mountain cavern.
In the same song, she declares she must “go to war to find material to sing”, and it’s an anxiety that’s echoed throughout the history of songwriting worldwide. If an artist doesn’t suffer, there is no fodder from which to write.
But Welch is not just flesh and blood; these very humble and human concerns are suddenly countered by a terrifyingly confronting, superhuman declaration: “You know I met the devil, he gave me a choice: a golden heart, or a golden voice” (Girls Against God). The arrangements on track Choreomania – the title of which comes from a “Renaissance phenomenon” Welch has become fascinated with, wherein groups of people danced to exhaustion (the most famous being the 1518 ‘Dancing Plague’ in Strasbourg, France) – are fantastical, with a clapping, tapping, gasping choir. We wait restlessly for the mania to break, feeling its energy shiver up our limbs as a Greek choir shrieks: “Something’s… coming!”
Back in Town is The Wizard of Oz-like, with otherworldy munchkin ‘ooohs’ and the strange throb of a harp whose notes you can’t quite discern. Welch’s voice twists sinewy like a vine and then glides through the air, as if it could either choke you or save you – an apt visual, it turns out, because she uses it herself in the spoken word section of single Heaven is Here: “And every song that I wrote became an escape rope/ tied around my neck, to pull me up to heaven.”
My Love, described my Welch as her “sad little poem”, was transformed from its demo state by Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley, who pushed the vocalist to consider synths – and the late companion to You’ve Got the Love was born in this panting disco belter.
On Dance Fever Welch saunters, creeps, brings spectral flamenco to its utter brink, collapses and gasps back to life with searing power, constantly blooming and dying and blooming again. It’s a bit like one of those enormous metal kinetic sculptures, which create endless fractals in the wind. It’s impossible but it’s certain, phantom but totally physical, and a bunch of other dichotomies crumpled and expanded into cyclic sensation.
Which is to say: Welch has raised her own bar, and vaulted it with air to spare.
Dance Fever by Florence + the Machine is out May 13, including on JB-exclusive vinyl edition with alternate cover art (pictured above-right), via Universal.