Most people know of Florence and the Machine because of their rapid 2009 rise to the top of the charts. Florence Welch, lead singer of the band of her creation, is quite a renaissance vocalist. This is partly why I mentioned Shakespeare before. Her mother is a Harvard-educated Professor of Renaissance Studies and Academic Dean of Arts at Queen Mary, University of London. She did acquire an appreciate for art…and a rangy, bluesy, soul-seeking croon that can tackle ballads and fast-paced rock hits. Welch experienced a meteoric rise to popularity, understandably, and has suffered from depression – a genetic disposition – which acts as a muse for this particular piece. She has also become quite a fashion icon for female performers known for long, flowing gowns and untraditional dress. She describes it as, “Lady of Shalott meets Ophelia … mixed with scary gothic bat lady.” Hence the Shakespeare reference and, for that matter, Tennyson!
Lungs, FTM’s first release, was a gigantic success. Ceremonials, their follow-up, will most likely develop into more of a success as the band supports the album with a tour and the album matures on iPod playlists. While “Breaking Down” was not released as a single – and I understand why a piece that may not be accessible to all would not be a single – it is definitely the most interesting on the album. It is also the number nine song of the year. Perhaps if I had a little more time with it, it may have shot up our charts as well. But for now it’s number nine and here it is.
Now, before I begin the analysis, let me just say that I understand that Florence and the Machine do experiment with an Indie/Baroque pop flavoring, so the play on classical instrumentation and complete-song crescendo should not be surprising. But I do believe that this song represents something far beyond a sprinkle of seasoning. This is a true baroque/art masterpiece and I’m glad that Florence is bringing musical art back into the mainstream. Well, the semi-mainstream I guess. I also want to give a credit to the sort-of unknown soldier in FTM – Isabella Summers – who along with playing keyboards, provides invaluable programming support.
The drums carry a moderate beat that immediately backs up a keyboard’s twangy echo playing a spacey riff and a whole bunch of mood-setting strings. Florence’s vocal control is extraordinary in every sense of that word. It is abnormally succesful. She is able to evoke emotion and passion while remaining composed. She has proven to us time and time again that she can belt it, but she waits. She builds the scene. She sets the stage, in other words. She personifies her depression (at least that’s what I take the foreboding, creeping presence as) and describes how it nears her and touches her.
Rising strings lead to a chorus of whispery ohs, a part that are both frightening and strangely welcoming. But before we can find ourselves comfortable, it jumps back to the verse that features an even more quiet Florence, as if she is singing in her room, in the dark, by herself, waiting for whatever’s coming to get her.
Towards the end of the song you can sense a climax and the lyrics hint to it. The force penetrates her and for a brief moment Florence belts out the lyric “breaking down” but then falls back to a lull, not a monotone, but a lull.
This is a perfect example of vocal precision, passion, and productivity. The three P’s to a good vocal performance. She has a message, displays it well, and does so with such force and delivery that the listener is left in awe. A vocal masterstroke. I’d love to hear more like this!