“It is an act of rebellion to remain present, to go against society’s desire for you to numb yourself, to look away. But we must not look away.” – Florence Welch
It will always be difficult for me to write about Florence Welch. It requires vulnerability on my part, to speak of the ways she has taught me to confront what I have tried to starve, write, or cry away. Her song in High as Hope, ‘Hunger’, opens with a confession: ‘At seventeen, I started to starve myself. I thought that love was a kind of emptiness.’ I was around sixteen when I did the same and I did not understand what love meant back then either. Years and years have gone by where I drowned out my own pain with Welch’s overdone reverbs and heavily layered vocals in Ceremonials—so the bare, stripped down, and terrifying honesty of the first line in ‘Hunger’ surprised me.
But one thing remained the same: Welch is still as sincere as she has always been, and her music still spoke to me in an unflinching way. This time, in High as Hope, Welch dances to vulnerability. And she shares her pain with us by chanting a universal truth, or at least one that feels rendered universal as soon as she utters it: ‘We all have a hunger.’ For Welch, a public expression of personal pain demands us to look at each other in earnest. We are suffering. We are living in a world that is indifferent to this suffering. But we must never, never look away: from the world, ourselves, and each other.
Welch has always been intimately personal, even with her debut album Lungs, and her critically acclaimed second, Ceremonials. Many have noticed that her shift to the naked vulnerability began with How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. They would be right, but not entirely so. With How Beautiful, Welch lets go of the orchestral choirs, but her own personal “judgemental choir” still frustratingly jockeys for attention, just like before. Except this time, Welch refuses to drown them out. In an essay she wrote for Vogue, she pens down:
“But the judgement choir never stopped singing. It still sings now, though not as loudly or as often, and when it does, I try not to self-medicate with straight vodka or starvation.”
Her music gradually learns to make room for her to deal with her problems head on. This means taking out the drums, synths, bass, violins, and choirs for songs like ‘Various Storms and Saints’ and ‘Sky Full of Song.’ We listen as Welch’s voice reverberates across the album without the support of the orchestral choirs that she was so used to. Instead, she bluntly states: ‘If only you could just forgive yourself.’ If Ceremonials is about using song to escape from your demons, then How Beautiful is a difficult love letter to oneself: to look at pain in the face, grapple with it, and turn it into song. It is about healing from the violence of escapism by allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
High as Hope, however, takes this vulnerability and turns it into a political calling for solidarity. During her live performances for this album, Welch waves the Pride flag while commanding: ‘Hold on to each other.’ Singing is no longer about composing a love letter to oneself. Instead, it is a love letter to the world, a pressing demand for us to sing together. Likewise, Welch confesses in ‘100 years’: ‘I believe in love and the darker it gets, the more I do.’ It sounds idealistic to have faith in love when we are bombarded with violence every waking moment. In countries like mine where same-sex love is illegal— possibly for years to come—having faith in love amounts to a kind of childish naivety. We have learnt cyncism, and perhaps that is easier is committing to a faith that fails to change matters. In other words, politics has doomed us to shit, and love cannot possibly help us all.
But I sing along with her, because I believe it when it is Welch who tells us these words. How could I not? Her commitment to vulnerability meant that I too, have learnt to accept what it means to love. She has always been sincere, and where else can you find sincerity anymore? High as Hope slowly gnaws through our nihilism, only because Welch has consistently shown us the beauty in opening ourselves up to another. She did it first when she looked to us, asked us to forgive ourselves, while asking the same of herself.
After all, the crux of Welch’s work lies in her willingness to lay it all bare for the world to see. Getting into her music, as Keaton Bell summarises in his article for Them, is an experience of “watching [her] bare her soul, asking you to do the same in return.” Her open address for us to feel is perhaps all the more crucial within the context of heightened political violence, when feeling becomes too much to bear. In turn, we numb ourselves, like Welch did when she composed Ceremonials. While sometimes necessary, there is nothing more exhausting than entirely numbing yourself from feeling. And it is certainly not useful to turn our backs on suffering while it continues for those around us. In this regard, what foregrounds Welch’s latest work is her acknowledgement of our pain, and the desire to listen to it. She has learnt to listen to her own, so now it is time to extend the same kindness to her audience. In ‘June’, she gently sings: ‘I am always down to hide with you.’
For me, that line represented a safe space while living in a country which continues to condemn people like me for loving. I fear what loving means for my future. Yet, Welch is singing: ‘It is such a wonderful thing to love.’ She is saying that it is okay to love, and even when it isn’t, I am always down to hide with you. Her vulnerability and willingness to share our pain, invites us to be vulnerable as well. It is a wonderful thing to love, and to believe in it figures a stronger resistance than apathy will ever be.
Words: Sharmane Tan