Photo Credit: Autumn de Wilde
“I am no mother, I am no bride, I am king,” chants Florence Welch on Dance Fever opener “King”; a mission statement for an album that sees the 35-year-old English musician unshackle herself from societal expectations and the malaise of lockdown living. “Florence and The Machine do dance music” is a sentence that, understandably, elicited trepidation in many. Classiness and restraint have defined even the most anthemic songs from the band, and the classical strengths of Welch’s voice would seem unsuited to the loud, crass, and unsubtle world of dance music.
It’s a relief, then, that the band’s fifth album and – first in four years – isn’t really a dance album, despite what the title and marketing surrounding the LP would suggest. It’s an even greater surprise that in the few moments where Dance Fever actually leans into the first half of its title, the results are a resounding success (see the glossy, earworm single “My Love”). It’s moments like “My Love” that make Dance Fever the biggest left-turn in the Florence and The Machine catalog thus far.
However, the album is also notable for featuring some of the most introspective songwriting of Welch’s career. Welch has never been opposed to writing confessionally, but the focus of her music has typically been on the world at large, rather than on herself as an individual. 2018’s stunning “Hunger”, for example, begins with a wrenching verse about Welch starving herself as a teenager, but for its booming chorus, she shifts towards a more universally relatable truth (“We all have a hunger”).
The songs on Dance Fever don’t tend to do this, and they’re all the better for it. “Girls Against God” – by its very title – suggests a collective perspective, but instead, is a deeply personal number about trying to take on the world and finding out in the process, you don’t even know yourself that well (“When I decided to wage holy war // It looked very much like staring at my bedroom floor”). Pulling herself out of the jaws of defeat, Welch taps into a vengeful spirit (“Oh God, you’re gonna get it”), before settling on a smaller, more personal – but equally seismic – victory (“But it’s good to be alive // Crying into cereal at midnight”).
While Welch is as good as ever at pulling off full-band, orchestral epics (“King”, “Free”) and is surprisingly adept at glitzy dance-pop (“My Love”), Dance Fever’s best moments also happen to be its most subdued (i.e. “Girls Against God”). Dance Fever ends with one of the best – and most understated – songs in the Machine catalog. Inspired by Nick Cave, Elvis, and one particularly destructive bender in New Orleans, it finds Welch battling the demons of touring while in Memphis Tennessee. “I’ve been here many times before // But I’ve never made it to Graceland”, she sighs. Later, “If I make it to the morning // I should’ve come with a warning” – still mournful, but this time with a knowing wink to the audience.
Moments later, she finds redemption in performing (“And if I make it to the stage // I’ll show you what it means // To be saved”). Bruised – and likely looking worse for wear given the night before – Welch steps on stage and the curtain lifts; she is still battling her demons, but for a moment they seem so small as she reconnects with makes it all matter. The drunken nights, the hungover mornings, the crying into cereal, all of it; suddenly seems beside the point. “I’ll show you what it means to be saved.”