The girl is thin. She is white. She has the air of a lost fawn teetering on spindly legs. She is beautiful but couldn’t care less. She smokes cigarettes, or maybe she just looks like she does. You want to fix her.
She is the sad girl, and she is eminently marketable.
Florence Welch, of Florence + the Machine, came onto the music scene in 2009 with her first big album, Lungs. Florence is one in a long line of mainstream sad girls, giving us confessional music, melancholic concerts, flashes of vulnerability in her songwriting, a sort of disaffection underlined by a bohemian look.
She’s weaving her way into a rich history, counting among her peers Sylvia Plath and Lana del Rey. You may know girls who are sad, but you don’t know a bona–fide “Sad Girl” because she’s a construction.
The tortured artist, the sad girl, the volatile creator—these archetypes permeate our understanding of what it means to create. Florence (and her work) are no strangers to this—she’s open about being two years sober and coming from a family with serious intimacy issues. But Florence + the Machine’s new album, High As Hope, breaks with her songwriting and production tradition of heavily produced songs chronicling sadness of whatever type.
The title of “No Choir,” the last song on High As Hope, winks at Florence’s discography. Ceremonials, her 2011 album that went platinum in six countries—among them the US, UK, and Australia—pumped organs through our headphones. Songs like “Bedroom Hymns” from her 2011 album Ceremonials sexualized religious iconography to the tune of—you guessed it—a choir. Even High As Hope features some choral undertones in many of its songs.
“No Choir” upends that. It’s pared down, without synthing or background vocals, so quiet you can barely make it out over the soft drip of your shower or the whir of passing traffic. But you want to stain to hear it, because her voice, light and vulnerable, is the centerpiece.
“And it's hard to write about being happy
'Cause the older I get
I find that happiness is an extremely uneventful subject
And there will be no grand choirs to sing"
Florence is right: it’s hard to create something moving and memorable about being happy.And while High As Hope features these fears heavily, they’re always synthed with a choir, lifting up the melody. This may be her most confessional album yet; Florence clues us into her own demons—an eating disorder, alcohol use, a “vast unnameable fear.”
“No Choir” is different. It’s a happy, still song, a break from much of Florence’s earlier work’s frantic, pulsing quality. The sadness, the struggle, that was loud. It’s comparable to Lana del Rey’s transformation from the sugar baby ingenue of Born to Die to the clear-eyed adult she seems to be on her newest album, Lust for Life. Consider even the titles of her lead singles on these albums: we go from “Summertime Sadness” at the beginning of her career to “Love” now.
But the question at work here doesn’t just concern happy vs. sad: the most revolutionary part of this capstone song is its stillness.
Writing about stillness is hard, in large part because we’re taught that the absence of motion is the antithesis of art. But there’s something aspirational about stillness in 2018. Things whiz past us and swirl around us. It’s been a year whirling with tweets and news stories, Brexits and border walls. It almost feels like we're conditioned to expect constant motion, to live with a seasick sort of whiplash.
Between the world we live in now and the way we're taught to think about emotion, it’s easy to represent love—real, true love, and the happiness that comes with it—as an inferno. All–consuming, Miley on the wrecking ball, the fields burning in Gone With the Wind.
But the best line of “No Choir” is the last one: “Darling, things seem so unstable/But for a moment we were able to be still.” Florence’s music may have coded her as a sad girl in the past, but now she’s taking a pause.
Still can mean stale. But not here.