Four years ago, Florence Welch howled out a prophecy in the final notes of “No Choir.”
This stripped down, fourth wall-breaking song concludes Florence + the Machine’s 2018 album, High As Hope. In it, Welch discusses her longing for the mundane: “And there would be no grand choirs to sing / No chorus could come in / About two people sitting doing nothing.” This song is remarkable in its stillness. In it we find Welch — who is known for her intensely cathartic ballads — longing for quiet: “And if tomorrow it’s all over / At least we had it for a moment / Oh, darling, things seem so unstable / But for a moment we were able to be still.”
In the still, instability of COVID-19, prior to the release of Florence + the Machine’s fifth studio album, Dance Fever, I listened to “No Choir,” aware that Welch had been one of those people “sitting doing nothing.” She was going to travel into the deep. I couldn’t help but wonder what she would discover in those lonely places. Speaking to Kate Mossman from The Guardian, Welch explained that she spent lockdown in her New York apartment, feeling “bereft” and writing “sad little poems” that eventually transformed into song lyrics.
It feels as if there’s an incantation around Dance Fever. Welch leads us through the complexities of finding beauty and purpose amid suffering and evil. The 14 tracks take us on a mythic journey that lingers on the pain. We enter the cool and romantic halls that Welch herself has hewn during her own period of COVID-19 isolation. She sings into the wounds.
Florence + the Machine debuted their first album, Lungs, in 2009. Since then, Welch, as lead singer, has written lyrics that range from tangled and tumbling jams (“Shake It Out”) to slowed down ballads that take your breath away with their profound truths (“Big God”).
The English indie rock band’s stylings have been consistently dramatic, ornate, and whimsical, marked by their signature bass drum and Welch’s improbable vocal range. Influenced by female musicians like PJ Harvey and Kate Bush, Welch follows a long succession of eccentric and powerful artists.
The new album’s title underscores that power and eccentricity: Dance Fever was named after the medieval phenomenon where communities were struck by involuntary dancing for days on end. The cause of the dancing fever is full of mystery. Some theorize that the dance fever was a stress response to the difficulties of the period — including plague. Welch related to the innate urge to dance through the suffering of our era’s own global pandemic and social injustices. “Something’s coming, so out of breath / I just kept spinnin’ and I danced myself to death,” she sings in “Choreomania,” gifting us the physical release from isolation and sickness that many of us craved during lockdown.
At many points in this album, we find Welch in mundane places: arguing in the kitchen (“King”), folding laundry (“Cassandra”), and crying into a bowl of cereal (“Girls Against God”). These places have served as the settings of our global catastrophe since 2020. Understanding the pain of suppression, she calls us to rage.
With Dance Fever, Welch has returned with a fury. She is resurrected in this album and ready to “wage holy war,” as she explains in her rebuke, “Girls Against God.” In previous albums, Welch duels and dances with the devil; in Dance Fever, she turns her glare toward God. Welch has gathered up all her complaints against God (global suffering and female disempowerment among others) and is here to rail. In “Dream Girl Evil,” she asks, “Well, did you miss me? / Walk on water just to kiss me / Oh, come and get me / Drag me out, destroy me / I’ve been expecting you, I’m ready.” To listen to Dance Fever is to witness Welch wrestling with God.
In “Cassandra,” Welch announced that “All the gods have been domesticated / And Heaven is now overrated / And the churches, they all closed their doors / But you can take your complaints straight to the Lord / I try to still look with wonder on the world / As the roses bloom / And the riot van still plainly in view.” For Welch, the institutional church isn’t the only way to convene with God.
In “Free,” the second single off the album, Welch asks, “Is this how it’s always been? / To exist in the face of suffering and death / And somehow still keep singing / Oh like Christ up on a cross / Who died for us? Who died for what? / Oh, don’t you wanna call it off? / But there’s nothing else that I know how to do / But to open up my arms and give it all to you.” It is here that Welch’s wrestling with God turns to dancing. The pain cannot entirely disappear, but in the spirit of bitterness and wonder at the world, our weeping is turned into uninhibited joy. With Welch, we are forging our own heaven on earth. Dancing on not despite, but through suffering.