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In the terrific video for Florence + The Machine’s new song, “Free”, the most dependably thrilling pop star of her generation lets rip to the poppy synth beat, while the manifestation of her very British anxiety (a perfectly cast Bill Nighy) paces around her clutching coffee, jabbing at his mobile phone and ordering her about. Anyone who’s seen Florence Welch live will know that she has always flung herself to wild, electric extremes in pursuit of ecstatic performance. But she’s never been more keenly aware that she’s also in flight from her own circuitry: “Running from something that’s in my head.” The sharpening of her self-knowledge adds a fresh crackle to Dance Fever, her fifth album with The Machine.
The album’s title was inspired by Welch’s fascination with the medieval “dancing plague” – also known as choreomania and St Vitus’ Dance. It was a form of mass hysteria during which groups of people broke into spontaneous dance, unable to stop until they dropped. Outbreaks usually coincided with periods of hardship and religious festivals, and the dancers were often (though not exclusively) women. The phenomenon is also the subject of a novel out this month (Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Dance Tree). It doesn’t feel surprising that artists have been drawn to themes of (much-missed) public gatherings in our age of mass online hysteria.
Although the band have been produced by Jack Antonoff (Lorde, St Vincent, Lana Del Rey) for the first time, there’s no big shift in their melodramatic brand of sweeping pop-rock, richly gilded with baroque swirls of brass, harp and woodwind. I suspect Antonoff (who has a tendency to make records sound like they’ve been recorded in expensive underground swimming pools at 2am) is behind some of the murky bass lines and woozy reverb. But song structures follow the rollercoaster of the singer’s moods as they “pick me up/ put me down/ chew me up/ spit me out”.
In its commitment to euphoria, Dance Fever is an album that looks forward to the release of all the pandemic’s pent-up energy at this summer’s festivals, where (like the medieval market square jiggers) we can dance until we drop. So it opens with the thudding pulse of “King”, and the domestic scene: “We argue in the kitchen about whether to have children…” But things are quickly swept into the theatrical realm in which Welch demands her “golden crown of sorrow/ my bloody sword to swing/ my halls to echo with grand self-mythology”. Here’s a female artist addressing the eternal choice between motherhood and a career which, rather weirdly, Welch says hasn’t struck her until now. But it’s rather glorious hearing her crocodilian purr rise to the conquering howl of a chorus that runs: “I am no mother/ I am no bride/ I am king!”
Elsewhere, she’ll compare herself to the ancient Greek soothsayer Cassandra, describe a meeting with the devil, and compare the art of live performance to practising the art of “resurrection every night, raising the dead under the moonlight”. I love her headlong grandiosity, especially when it rises from scenes in which she describes sobbing into bowls of late-night cereal. She returns to assess her tangled life/work balance on the gloriously clubbable “My Love”, which recaptures the arms-aloft vibe of her 2008 cover of “You’ve Got The Love”. The track finds her looking back on a time when “I was always able to write my way/ The song always made sense to me/ Now I find that when I look down/ Every page is empty.” To a chunky-bright Nineties strobe of a beat and choral backing vocals, Welch yowls for something to sing about and a place to park her love.
She incorporates a dreamy Hawaiian guitar on the dreamy “Morning Elvis”, then adds her self-destructive wit to “The Bomb” and “Choreomania”’s spoken-word confession about “freaking out in the middle of the street with the complete conviction of someone who has never had anything actually really bad happen to them”. On the brief “Restraint”, Welch asks “have I learned restraint?/ Am I quiet enough for you yet?” Ha! I hope she never learns to keep a lid on her wonderful wildness. Long may she reign.