It’s hard to imagine Florence Welch going bigger than she did on her surprise-hit 2009 debut Lungs, which held back little in its roiling whirlpool of keening vocals, rococo instrumentation, and outsized emotion. Yet the British singer’s follow-up, Ceremonials, manages to be even more aggressively effusive, which should cement the affections of fans who respond to Welch’s hyper-romantic aesthetic and further annoy those who dismiss her as a caterwauling Kate Bush acolyte. But credit’s due to Welch for homing in on a concept and attacking it with passion and clarity. She’s guided in this endeavor by lone producer Paul Epworth, who co-produced Lungs and develops that album’s dramatics even further here: There are no digressions or half-assed larks, just wave after wave of tribal drumming, orchestral flourishes, and layered choral vocals crescendoing toward one inevitable catharsis after another.
If it sounds exhausting, it is. But it’s also an exhilarating 56 minutes of unadulterated, undulating emotion that always manages to pull up just before careening off the rails. The songs on Ceremonials are anthems, not indulgences, meant to induce communal exaltation rather than show off Welch’s vocals, which are as showy as ever, but in a manner that compliments the even-showier instrumentation rather than fighting it. The album has too many dark themes to call it celebratory, but it is invigorating, from the gospel-pop therapy of “Shake It Out” to the soul-kissed hedonism of “Lover To Lover,” from the gothic-lite exorcism of “What The Water Gave Me” to the new-wave wallowing of “Breaking Down.” Ceremonials is Welch barreling off a cliff on wings made of dear-diary sentiment, art-school theatrics, and pure-cut sincerity, and somehow, against all odds, she manages to soar.