Like that awkward yet talented girl in your high school drama class, Florence Welch exploded on the pop scene two years back with her sleeper hit, Lungs, charming as many listeners as she confounded. She had all the tools of an offbeat pop sorceress: a crown of flaming red hair, a stylish hippie wardrobe, and a bulldozer of a voice that blended gritty soul and flowery art-pop. But most important, she had quality songs to back up her quirky image, rock-solid melodies and headphone-worthy details — fluttering harps, raw-ass beats, and haunting orchestrations.
On first listen, Ceremonials sounds like a continuation of what you either loved or hated about the last record. All 12 of these tracks are rich with Final Fantasy layers and coated in an impeccable studio gloss, Welch's voice still winding and whirring over every lavish inch. For a while, it's promising: "Only If for a Night" pits Welch's soulful-and-strange vocal gymnastics against a firecracker beat and a gang of chorus chanters. But elsewhere, Ceremonials feels drained of personality. "Never Let Me Go" is a placid slow-jam serenade to Mother Ocean: "The arms of the ocean so sweet and so cold/And all this devotion I never knew at all." When she exclaims, "It's all over; I'm going under," it's unclear whether she's committing suicide or practicing her can-opener dive. Either way, it's boring. On occasion, her show-off-y melisma floats past acquired taste into plain ol' ridiculousness. Her borderline out-of-tune flights of fancy on the Aretha-styled "Lover to Lover" are less sexy than deranged. Even the single feels forced: carpe diem arena-ballad "Shake It Out" could easily soundtrack a Gatorade ad. "It's always darkest before the dawn," goes the hook, soaring above blank keys and pounding tom-toms. But there's no darkness, no drama, no tension to speak of.