Album Assignments: Ceremonials

I love a slice of cheesecake. It could be topped with fruit, or chocolate, or caramel, or even nothing at all, and I will be absolutely delighted to have it in front of me. It feels like more than a dessert — it feels like an event. Every moment of eating that slice of cheesecake is bliss. If I’m feeling particularly ravenous or decadent, I might even have a second slice of cheesecake. But if you put an entire cheesecake in front of me, despite how much I love it, I would probably demur. A couple of slices is enough.

Yes, I actually do have a point here about Florence + The Machine’s second album — I haven’t accidentally started a food blog. My point is this: where many albums are like a great buffet, or a delicious meal, Ceremonials is an ENTIRE. DAMN. CHEESECAKE.

When any single track from this album comes up in the iPod shuffle, I am thrilled. The combination of powerful orchestration, tribal beats, building operatic drama, and Florence Welch’s astonishing voice makes for an epic experience. But listening to all twelve tracks in a row, especially on repeat, which is how I tend to listen to these assigned albums… it can be a little overwhelming.

Album cover from Ceremonials

The formula for all these songs is more or less the same. Let’s take one at random, how about “All This And Heaven Too.” After a few seconds of sound effects, there’s a steady beat and Welch singing pretty calmly, spinning an extended metaphor about the language of the heart. A shift into a minor key starts to ramp up the tension. Layers of Welch’s voice begin to swirl around the main vocal line, Kate Bush style, the range of the melody widening out until the chorus hits with a high note, and Welch shifts into belting out the lines, communicating emotional desperation as the drums pound and the synths swell. Now all those Kate Bush layers are in full effect, droning against and counterpointing the melody line.

Then it all drops out for another verse, just like the first. We build, and build, and burst once again into the same chorus, same layers, same grand parade of operatic feeling. Then there’s a wordless bridge, dominated by drums and vocal layers, stentorian chanting from Welch atop her own voice laying down base chords, and then that overflowing chorus again, resolving into anthemic vocalizations, all about how language can’t contain the level of emotion she’s feeling. And then the whole thing winds up quietly, as Welch sings about “screaming out a language that I never knew existed before.”

I mean, it’s awesome. It’s epic. It’s an incredible emotional ride, contained in the space of four minutes. And pretty much every song on this album is like that. But how many roller coasters can you ride in a row, before your head needs a rest? Is twelve too many?

It’s funny, I wrote a couple of months ago about how the Killers’ 2004 album came out just as the album sequencing era was winding down, and MP3s had turned people into singles enthusiasts once more. Ceremonials, released in 2011, goes even further, collecting 12 intense experiences into a set that wants to be spaced out, mixed in with less dramatic pieces so that it can tower over them in contrast.

When they’re sequenced back to back, over and over, it’s not that they become less good, it’s just that a kind of numbing sets in. You just can’t be transported again and again in the space of an hour. And yet, even when I listed to this on repeat, some songs retained their power to give me chills. “Shake It Off” is the first of these, quite justifiably a worldwide hit, and a memorable rallying cry to rid ourselves of the ghosts that haunt us. “No Light, No Light” is a close second, perhaps because its lyrics permit Welch to address a relationship directly rather than through a distancing metaphor. And finally, “Spectrum” pulls off the rather neat trick of a vivid visualization that ultimately maps back to an emotional reality: “Say my name, and every color illuminates.”

These songs are amazing songs. Every one of them feels like an event. Taken together, they are a little too rich for my palate. But when any single one of them is set in front of me, the bliss is that much more for not bludgeoning me with one high after another.

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