Artist: Florence + the Machine

Title: Ceremonials

Label: Universal Republic Records  

"It's hard to dance with a devil on your back, so shake him off," sings twenty-five-year-old Florence Welch early on her acclaimed rock band's noteworthy second album, Ceremonials. In a single line, the clearly Kate Bush-inspired vocalist defines the record's vivid ongoing tension between life's emotional torments and the quest for some type of deeper spiritual overcoming.

Although Florence + the Machine is by no means a Christian act, its lyrics—literate and free of profanity—lean toward imagery that can apply to anyone with soul concerns. Further, the act's musical template of blending classical elements (harp, low range percussion, echoing vocals) with modern influences has wide appeal, not unlike what Coldplay has done in recent years.

"Only If for a Night" tells the story of a child communicating with a departed loved one through a dream, another haunted instance where a sense of hope pervades. The aforementioned "Shake It Out" is a poetic anthem with pop sensibility, surely one of the best-arranged singles of 2011. "What the Water Gave Me" is another remarkable moment, an unexpectedly beautiful rock song rich in metaphor that almost sounds like Annie Lennox being backed by U2.

That opening trilogy is hard to beat, but there are certainly other fine tracks on Ceremonials. "Never Let Me Go" is a gospel-tinged piano ballad referencing "a sinner like me" and exploring Welch's strangely romantic notion of drowning. "Lover to Lover" is a catchy rocker but drifts away from responsibility: "I believe there's no salvation for me now . . . but that's alright."

The eerie "Seven Devils" is the sort of piece—along with the heavy use of symbolic imagery in the band's music videos—that leads some to suspect Florence + the Machine is more esoteric in its beliefs, perhaps to the point of being somewhat sinister. Lines like "Holy water cannot help you now" don't help, but the album's forthright spirit of searching outweighs those suspicions.  

"All This and Heaven Too" is a shining example as Welch wrestles on the bright and rhythmic cut with the ways of the heart and the concept of heaven itself. "That I could just understand the meaning of the word . . . I've been scrawling it forever but it never makes sense to me."

Ceremonials is filled with dramatic melodies, sonic creativity, and honest wonder. It will be interesting to watch as Florence + the Machine develops.

*This article first published 12/21/2011

**Listen to this album on Spotify