A second album can be a frightful prospect if your first was universally acclaimed. How does one succeed their first triumph and manage to overcome, or at least meet, impossibly high expectations? There are a few ways that musicians have approached this: avoid failure by maintaining the same sound and essentially repeating yourself, spurn success by indulging in experimentation and retreating from the pop world, or various mixtures of these two extremes. No matter which approach is taken, it is obvious that a strong debut can be a curse, weighing heavily on an artist throughout recording of new material. Perhaps that is why Florence+ the Machine titled their sophomore effort Ceremonials; such a title conjures images of holy rituals to ward off just such a curse.
In Ceremonials, Florence Welch opts for a route leaning towards the same sound as her first album, Lungs. The arrangements have evolved, with organ and strings added to the mix while the harp is scaled back and the drums are brought forward. A few of the songs venture into new territory as well, though not always successfully; “Never Let Me Go” and “All This and Heaven Too” have the explosive snare and optimistic piano of a cheesy ballad. Some of the new styles work well: “Breaking Down” has breathy vocals and reminds of an Arcade Fire anthem, and “Lover to Lover” is a jaunty tryst into the kind of up-tempo soul owned by Adele (and the Adele parallel is impossible to ignore since Paul Epworth, who co-wrote several songs on her album 21 is signed on as producer here). Because Florence’s vocals haven’t much changed (nor should they) and are the defining feature of the group, much of the material could have fit onto the first album, though these songs tend to be moodier and less happily exuberant; if Lungs was a grassy lea flooded by sunshine and cooled by a gentle breeze, Ceremonials is a cavernous cathedral with corners darkened by shadows.
Florence+ the Machine have handed in a valiant effort to avoid the sophomore slump. Unfortunately, this time they don’t quite match the overriding joy experienced when listening to Lungs. The songs this time out are as good as they were on Lungs in many cases, and growth has occurred as well, which is a difficult achievement. Yet in the end Ceremonials just barely misses the mark, and the group seems to know it. The album closer, “Leave My Body,” contains a repeated line that is an acknowledgment of the burden of their past success: “Movin’ up to higher ground/History keeps pullin’ me down.” You almost made it.
Once again with the pretentious metaphors…