On Dance Fever, Florence + the Machine Return to Arena Boom

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On Dance Fever, Florence + the Machine dissects the concept of bodies in motion, distilling dance to its most polar extremes.

At one end is the modern, more familiar interpretation — where Dance Fever might mirror the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever — as the singer deliriously ushers a return to the live music experience, her place of comfort and prowess. Titanic drum samples, barreling hooks and a significant assist from pop super-producer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey) — it’s all designed to reignite the mammoth crowds awaiting Florence + the Machine’s upcoming arena tour. Welch appears hellbent, too, on erasing the stunted, solitary days of quarantine; the album’s recording process, fatefully set to begin in March 2020, was derailed by the pandemic like so many others.

But Welch also presents Dance Fever as a literal sickness.

“So out of breath / I just kept spinning / And I danced myself to death,” Welch sings on the paranoid, skittering new track “Choreomania,” named for the Renaissance-era phenomenon of erratic, involuntary dancing. Across Europe, thousands of people would euphorically jump and twirl for hours, days, even weeks straight until they collapsed in exhaustion.

While the cause of the impromptu “dancing plague” has never been solved, theories suggest mass poisoning, religious cults or, most simply, a misunderstood reaction to stress and peril; dancing to forget.

It’s a fitting fascination for Welch, who’s known to perform like a woman possessed, sprinting barefoot across the stage, pirouetting near its edge, her audience praying she doesn’t spin into the photographers’ pit (she did that at least once, breaking her foot at Coachella in 2015).

Florence + the Machine’s fifth LP, out on May 13, lives somewhere in the middle distance between Welch’s Dance Fever definitions, floating between moments of patently explosive pop-rock dominance — surefire bolsters to the band’s excellent stage show — and fits of anxiety and self-reflection deeply tethered to biblical allusions.

At its most maximized highs — propelled as always by Welch’s unwavering, singular vocal character — the album works hard to recapture some of the grandeur of defining FATM records Lungs (2009) and Ceremonials (2011), soaring above 2018’s generally more modest High as Hope.

“Free” is a relentless synth-rock banger fueled by overbearing digital keys, perhaps purposeful in their grate as Welch unpacks her regular bouts of anxiety: “[It] picks me up, puts me down, 100 times a day.” Here, Antonoff’s presence is most overt — the oversized ‘80s-Springsteen instrumentals are boilerplate for his electro-pop group Bleachers, and have spilled into the catalogs of most of his collaborators. Yet the song moves, unloading heaps of arena-ready fun despite its familiarity.

The lead single “King” is steadier in its analog rock churn, as Welch is candid about her identity, and where a musician’s life fits and doesn’t fit among traditional female roles. “I am no mother, I am no bride, I am king,” she sings again and again with resolution. Yet she knows how hollow her kingdom may sometimes seem: “My empty halls to echo with grand self-mythology.” The track builds to a mammoth moment of vocal exultation, again orchestrated to bellow through arenas later this year. Though the tune feels overcooked in its final minute; the saxophone is very much an “Antonoff couldn’t help himself” sort of moment.

Dance Fever’s only true dance track is the pumping single “My Love,” a middle-plate disco cut co-written and produced by Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley, who shepherded about half of the 14-track album’s back half. Imagine Welch’s early hit “You’ve Got the Love” got a club-kid makeover, with an extra dose of confusion and frustration: “I don’t know where to put my love,” Welch wails over the heavy thump.

As with most FATM efforts, the singles tend to carry the day, though the album track “Dream Girl Evil” is a clear stand-out; loads of confident brood and “Sympathy for the Devil” vibes as Welch croaks to an unlucky ex: “Did mummy make you sad?” The track, featuring background vocals from alt-pop star Maggie Rogers, is one of many Fever songs to mention Christian iconography: Angels, demons, holy wars and the devil himself, who Welch says offered her “A golden heart or a golden voice” on “Girls Against God” (also backed by Rogers).

The remaining tracks play serviceable albeit generally unmemorable second fiddles. “Back In Town” is a torchy sort of soul track with minimalist synth, “Cassandra” nods to the eponymous Greek myth — a goddess gifted with foresight but cursed never to be believed — and “Daffodil” overloads its percussion, achieving a bombast Imagine Dragons fans would surely appreciate.

Dance Fever is a worthy addition to the band’s catalog, with enough moments to be plucked for what will surely be an invigorating series of live shows beginning in September. It’s a sly and polished effort, sustained by Welch’s fearlessness both in vocal technique and lyrical vulnerability. No modern artist commands such power in both moments of ethereal humanity and mountainous throttle. Her return to touring should be nothing short of epic.

On the album’s closing tune, a folksy, self-referential, Emmylou Harris-nodding cut called “Morning Elvis,” Welch alludes to her own dominance, boasting: “If I make it to the stage / I’ll show you what it means to be saved.”

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