The music of Florence + The Machine is rapturous, romantic, ethereal, and epic. The songs tell stories of heartbreak, loss, ghostly visitations, howling beasts, devils, and of course, love. Creating this list of songs was difficult, mostly because I couldn’t make up my mind about how to choose them. But after some thought, I realized that there were a small handful of songs that I listened to more than any others. It’s not that I don’t have other favorites, I just went through long stretches of time listening to these particular songs on repeat. Sometimes these phases lasted weeks, but more often than not, they lasted months. Once this idea settled, the songs fell into place. They are in no particular order, although for me, this playlist makes an intuitive kind of sense.
“Only If For A Night”
This song, which opens with a shimmery descending piano scale, is alive with fire and otherworldly light; it is filled with practical advice, given by a ghost in a dream: we must concentrate, and we must fight. The song takes place in a school that is also a graveyard. The singer does handstands and cartwheels among the grass and gravestones; it is an image both playful and stirring: a lively girl gleefully leaping among the dead.
The musical structure of this “Only If For A Night” is unique, in that it is quite spacious. There are large gaps of silence between the piano chords, which loop throughout the song, and the beats, strings, and backing vocals gradually fill in the space. The harp adds a crisp lightness which counterbalances the heaviness of the piano. During the chorus of this song, Florence’s voice is doubled, which adds an almost synthetic, even electronic, quality to her performance. The combination of these instruments and production elements creates a dreamy, enveloping, yet powerful soundscape.
There is a live performance of this song that I have watched dozens and dozens of times. Here, you can witness Florence Welch transform into a beacon of light. At the end of the performance, Florence launches into the backing vocals in the outro of this song, which are somewhat buried on the album recording. Although she is simply singing “Yeah yeah yeah!”, the intensity with which she sings lifts her out of herself and throws her into a state of total ecstasy. The true meaning of the word ecstasy is “to be outside of oneself” and in this performance, Florence is ecstatic: the physical act of singing has lifted her out of herself in a moment of rapture that I am so grateful was captured on video. I loved Florence before seeing this video, but after watching it, I was able to recognize the extent of her expressive vocal power, as well as her deep capacity for joy.
At the end of this performance, Florence tilts her head and looks up; she lifts her arm and extends her hand, as if reaching out to someone, perhaps the presence of the ghost who inspired the song, the spirit who was conjured again through the physical act of singing, invoked and evoked by breath, emotion, and sound, called forth by the inhalation and exhalation of oxygen and the transmutation of music into mystical fire.
The sensual realm of “Drumming Song” is both alluring and dangerous. The song begins with a sudden burst of thundering drum strikes, which vary and build throughout the song. The production style (almost) makes it sound like a dance tune, but if you listen to what Florence is actually saying, you become aware of a dark, forceful undertone that permeates the song from beginning to end like a crack in a windowpane; the crack steadily stretches and grows until it inevitably explodes in a rain of glass
“Drumming Song” is flooded with an incessant pulsating desire that overwhelms and overrides rational thought; the desire pulls you out of your skin and lifts you off your feet against your will. It begins as a quivering, shaky feeling that gradually becomes a quake. The explosive drum strikes pummel us until we accept our powerlessness, submit to the music, and hand ourselves over to desire.
I also recommend this acoustic performance of “Drumming Song.” It is surprisingly powerful, especially considering there is not a single drum in the room.
A hazy, train-like synthesizer, ghostly piano, macabre lyrics, and an underlying jugular pulse create the ominous world of “Howl,” which is filled with werewolves, saints, graveyards, full moons, and blood.
Sometimes our desire makes beasts of us. When the chemicals of the body and the yearning of the soul flood the mind, we go mad, and (temporarily) lose our humanity. This song illustrates how young love “starts so soft and sweet,” but becomes all-consuming over time, to the extent that we will damage ourselves for those we love (“I hunt for you with bloodied feet across the hallowed ground”). Once we’ve tasted desire, we begin to crave it; then, it becomes something else, or rather, we become something else. We become hunters, mindlessly tracing the footsteps of our desire, always a little bit behind, never realizing we are the ones leaving the tracks that we follow.
When Florence sings the word “howl” and sends it flying into the air, she splits it in half, beginning with “hao”, followed by the full word, “howl.” Her voice is like an ocean wave that lifts, curls, and crashes; the sound has a degree of solidity to it, something I can physically feel washing over me. I also marvel at the fact that she doesn’t run out of oxygen as she sings the flurry of lyrics in the chorus of the song, particularly at the end.
“Howl” acknowledges the inherent duplicity of human beings: we can be both saint and sinner, heroine and villain, human and monster. The problem isn’t our dual nature, it’s the fact that these opposing states of being are so far apart. A person who lives in a state of extremes repeatedly swings from pole to pole, bouncing back and forth, sometimes violently, without ever finding balance. In severe cases, the tension becomes so unbearable that the bridge between the opposing sides of the personality splits entirely in half. A psyche can only handle so much tension, and when we find ourselves trapped in an endless cycle of craving and desire, sometimes all we can do is howl.
In terms of live performances, I prefer this windy, messy, thunderous rendition of “Howl,” which showcases the full force of Florence + The Machine.
It’s a shame that “Which Witch” was relegated to the deluxe version of How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, because it is a devastatingly powerful song with a wildly idiosyncratic arrangement. The song takes place in a dark world that is somehow both medieval and futuristic; it is a dreadful walk to the gallows after an unfair trial, and a call to a lover from far away.
A deep feeling of yearning churns at the core of this song. Florence sings: “I’m miles away/He’s on my mind/ I’m getting tired of crawling all the way.” The narrator is trying to bleach out a scar on her heart that just won’t go away; she feels herself on trial, a witch accused of an unnamed crime, a lovesick heretic who is fed up with crawling back for forgiveness, but she’s starved for connection, which leaves her caught in a painful cycle. There is something frenzied and deeply unbalanced about this song, which I love.
I first discovered “Which Witch” when I was very sick. I had an extremely painful virus that kept me awake for days, and the lack of sleep brought me close to insanity. One night, during the peak of this illness, I had a bad fever. It was around 3 a.m., and yet again, I couldn’t sleep. I tried distracting myself with music, and at some point, probably after listening to How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful in its entirety, I found this song. It immediately pulled me in. I especially loved the lyric:
And it’s my whole heart
Burned but not buried this time
I lived this line: a virus burned through me, leaving me physically scarred, but not buried, not yet. That night, I probably listened to this song 10 times (at least). I am a shameless serial song repeater. I will fall into the world of a song for days. I let it haunt me, I let it do its work on me, in me, through me. I might learn to play and sing it, I might share it with friends, or I might keep it to myself, but either way, I continue returning to it until it feels finished, and this song didn’t finish its work on me for months. By the time it was done, my own sickness was gone, but the global sickness of 2020 was about to begin.
“June” begins with a muffled piano, ambient noise, and plucked strings. The story begins in the aftermath of a performance. The black sky of Chicago hovers overhead. We can no longer hide behind our performer persona; we are left alone with our real feelings, and we are faced with ourselves. The world, not just the sky, grows dark in this song. The entire world has had its heart broken, again and again, and we are beginning to lose our grip on what is important, true, and real. We can temporarily hide in the blue glow of the TV, in smoke or in drink, but not forever. Eventually we must face the reality of our circumstances, bleak as they might be.
When I saw Florence + The Machine live in 2019, early on in the show, Florence said that she had been quite sad, but that performing for us was starting to warm her up and make her feel better. It was a simple yet vulnerable admission, and it comes through this song, too, as if she is broken-hearted, yet feels pressured to share and to speak, so she implores us to hold on to each other. What better advice could she possibly give us in a world like this?
There is a kind of strained sorrow that runs through this song and the rest of High as Hope, a kind of starkness or nakedness, the feeling that something essential has been removed. At times, this album left me feeling a bit underfed. But I’m not making a value judgment about that—maybe it was an intentional thematic choice, a mirroring of a lived experience reflected in the words and music of the album. Regardless, the album still has some great songs.
“June” ends with the line, “I’m so high, I’m so high, I can see an angel,” followed by several rapid thunderclaps. Someone is so high they’re seeing angels, yet their body is overwhelmed with a visceral panic reminiscent of a heart attack. For me, the end of this song signals an oncoming collision, a moment of shock, the feeling of being forcibly awoken from a dream.
“Third Eye” implores us to embrace heartbreak. Not only to embrace it but to bask in the exuberance of surviving it. The tears and rips in our heart are new eyes, new openings, new channels for energy to flow through; the stretching of the heart results in a greater capacity to feel, and that growth should be celebrated.
The heart in “Third Eye” is many hearts; it is the original lifeline, the physical pump, the spiritual heart, and the emotional organ of love and connection. The pain of the heart can be a tribute, not one of victimhood but of pride; we can be proud that we were courageous enough to love and have our hearts broken.
This song is energetically charged; it has momentum, and it revels in itself. “Third Eye” is like Florence + The Machine’s emotional battle cry. Florence belts out almost every lyric of this song, channeling the force of heart through her entire body. It is impossible for me to listen to this song without being affected by it; it increases my heart rate, wakes me up, and makes me want to sing. It reminds me that every human experience, even the painful ones, can be embraced with pride.
“Hunger” is a disco-infused confessional about the confusion between instinctual urges and relational needs. I had this song on repeat for many, many weeks, and though I wished the rest of the lyrics were as stark and honest as the first verse, something about this song was so addictive. Maybe I returned to it again and again because it always made me feel like I was in another decade, somewhere more decadent and playful, a fantasied place and time that is free from the unceasing anxiety and chaos of the current era.
Even still, death hovers in the periphery of “Hunger”; it’s like an underground river, a stream of dark water flowing beneath the upbeat, glossy surface of the song. What Florence says is true, “We all have a hunger,” but some hungers can kill, especially when our emotional or spiritual hunger is literalized. Instead of finding fulfillment, we continue to crave, perpetually running in circles, going nowhere.
In the end of “Hunger,” beauty makes a fool of death. Beauty helps us by convincing us, if only for a moment, that we don’t always have to worry. Sure, death is coming; eventually, it comes for us all, but not in this moment. For now, we can bask in the beauty of the world, of another human being, of a beautiful girl dancing in a pink dress. It’s good to be reminded that the impermanence of what life is what makes it beautiful. Hunger might become mindless craving or addiction, but it might not, it might lead to something else. Besides, we are human, and as human beings, we want, and we need. Our hunger makes us real.
“St. Jude” is a lavender sky filled with clouds teetering on the edge of rain; the air is humid and heavy with expectation; the land and the sea are tinged with purple light. Musically, the song is simple: a few chords played in a cycle; but it somehow feels vast, complete, and fully formed just as it is.
The chaos of the impending storm is outside, and we-the-listener are sheltered within, contained by a voice and an oboe and an organ. I listened to this song on many solitary walks, moments when I couldn’t identify what was wrong, or name what I had lost. I didn’t have a clear reason to grieve, and yet I grieved. Following the instruction of the song, I let the feeling of loss reveal the way forward, even if I could only see it step by step. Sometimes that is all we have; we take responsibility for our choices and their consequences, and we keep moving forward.
Sometimes we can’t reach each other, even when we’re in the same room. Sometimes we just aren’t as attuned to one another as we want to be. Limitation is another kind of loss, the loss of the illusion of who we thought we could be; but limitation it is integral to our humanity: we are inherently limited, finite beings. And that’s okay.
At bottom, this song teaches us that loss can reveal deep meanings, but only if we don’t run away from it.
“The End of Love”
“The End of Love” begins with dissonant strained strings that gradually become harmonic and grow into something recognizable, something which builds upon itself and creates the structure of the song that follows. The strings are like the foreword or the prologue, and the piano chords initiate Chapter 1 of the story. And, of course, it’s a love story, and a dream of “a sign that read The End of Love.”
There is a family pulled from a flood, a rushing river, and a summer love that felt like reaching, maybe clawing, in the dark. And somehow the fall, the end of the love, didn’t hurt as much as expected.
In a sense, it’s a confessional song: a confession of love at first sight and familial suicide. But it’s also a celebration of a love that was grand, sweeping, and utterly romantic. The singer was consumed by her love and didn’t resist the flow, but instead moved with it, accepting that she was being carried away. There is a deep acceptance in this song: not every relationship lasts forever, but that doesn’t diminish their poignancy, the depth of their influence, or their significance. And the singer, who let herself be carried off by love, willingly let it go when the time was right. There is no hanging on here, no clinging, which I find so refreshing.
The song ends abruptly, quietly, in simple piano chords followed by a trail of barely audible atmospheric tones, perhaps mirroring the last glimmers of summer light on the horizon before the sun disappears and we are fully covered with the blanket of night.
“Wish That You Were Here”
The first time I heard this song, I immediately fell in love with it. Originally featured on the soundtrack for the Tim Burton film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, this song is a story of longing. But it’s also a yearning for someone who is distant even when physically near, and the singer realizes that, for all her reservations or misgivings, she still misses her lover and wishes she was with them.
The song’s verses are gentle and somber, but the chorus is upbeat and quite lively. There is a push-pull of tension throughout the song, and what happens to this relationship isn’t made explicit, but we are left the feeling that something is descending, like a falling leaf; perhaps the love is ending, perhaps it is just changing. Narrative aside, there is something I find so moving about the lyric “I wish that you were here.” It’s a simple message, but Welch’s voice conveys it with such sincerity; it is an all-encompassing statement: her entire being wishes you were here.
There is a magical quality to the instrumental ending of this song. It’s a playful atmosphere which evokes images of flight: balloons float upward, kites are carried along the wind, feathered creatures float across the sky. It’s a moment of awe at the beauty of nature, like watching the wind comb through fields of wheat in an undulating hypnotic dance.
The other message embedded in this song is the notion that we change each other and are changed by each other. We may have been decidedly solitary individuals, but slowly, imperceptibly, our yearning and our missing transformed us, until one day we realize we no longer prefer being alone.
Ultimately, we all depend on each other. Regardless of the nature of our relationships, we exist in an interconnected, interdependent world, and that, simply put, is pure magic.