MIRIAM ZEGHLACHE explores the setting free of the interior self in Florence + The Machine’s 2022 album, Dance Fever.
I don’t know how it started
Don’t know how to stop it
Suddenly, I’m dancing
To imaginary music
So goes Florence + The Machine’s ‘Choreomania’, a song that, in many ways, encapsulates the main themes of their most recent album, Dance Fever (2022). We have control over the act of spiralling and ‘dancing’, and yet simultaneously do not. Florence + The Machine’s ‘imaginary music’ is an overwhelming force that is mimetically represented in the song’s increasingly frenzied progression, asking us whether we control our own interiority, or if it controls us.
Dance Fever, described by Welch as a ‘fairytale in fourteen songs’, certainly encompasses otherworldly and often sinister themes. The Medieval phenomenon of the Dance Craze, for example, has echoes in the Brothers Grimm story of the ‘The Red Shoes’, and has since influenced the artist’s own work. However, these songs crucially paint a picture of our own collective psyches, brutally dragging their depths into the open. In the song ‘King’, opening with an ominous percussion, Welch sings her chorus:
I need my golden crown of sorrow, my bloody sword to swing,
I need my empty halls to echo with grand self-mythology
‘Cause I am no mother, I am no bride, I am King
This image of kingship, with the metonymic ‘golden crown of sorrow’ and ‘bloody sword to swing’, brings the listener into the world of mythic monarchs . The music video itself (Dir. Autumn de Wilde), alludes to this, with Welch draped in robes of royal purple, floating through air, flanked by a henchman. However, the song also roots us in dire reality, drawing on the theme of self-conflict. Though the ‘king’ seeks power and its symbols, they are aware that its fruits are merely ‘empty halls [that] echo with grand self-mythology’, thereby embodying a static, empty concept begotten and ending with itself. This sense of decay disguised as self-empowerment is conveyed in the line, ‘What strange claws are these, scratching at my skin/I never knew my killer would be coming from within’, which conjures a self-destructive image of our own choices and inner demons being the source of our ruin. Thus, our interior selves take over, rendering our sense of control an illusion.
The song’s theme of self-conflict is also highlighted in Florence Welch’s interview with Vogue (April 26th 2022), where she claims, ‘The whole crux of the song is that you’re torn between the two […] The thing I’ve always been sure of is my work, but I do start to feel this shifting of priorities, this sense of, like […] maybe I want something different.’ The oppressive weight of the ‘crown’ as well as of ‘this shifting of priorities’ are tearing her apart, and this inner turmoil arises at the song’s climax, when Welch’s searing vibrato creates a raw and melodious cry to the heavens, an expression of rage and cathartic release. Her interiority is brought to the open, releasing her turmoil over being made to decide between two choices that have been unjustly presented to her as opposing binaries.
In the song ‘Cassandra’, interiority is something that is repressed and erased, since:
I used to see the future and now I see nothing
They cut out my eyes and sent me home packing
I used to tell the future, but they cut out my tongue
And left me doing laundry to think of what I’d done
It wasn’t me, it was the song
Cassandra, the Homeric Trojan seeress who was cursed with having nobody believe her predictions, is the symbol used by Welch to express the stifling of her cathartic outlet – namely, ‘the song’. However, the internal self gradually takes control and eventually erupts into chaos. The increasingly frenzied use of percussion, contrasting the soft stringed melodies of the introduction highlights the scene: ‘As empires crumble and cathedrals flatten/In my heart’. The powers of authority have been destroyed, implying that the release of the self within is not only healthy, but revolutionary.
In the song ‘Free’, interiority is embodied by anxiety, which lives within many of us and yet is capable of controlling most aspects of our lives. Welch sings:
Sometimes, I wonder if I should be medicated
If I would feel better just lightly sedated
The feeling comes so fast and I cannot control it
I’m on fire, but I’m trying not to show it
The feeling of being destroyed from the inside-out (‘I’m on fire, but I’m trying not to show it’) is one which is not easily controlled. In the music video, Welch constantly runs through halls and roads, always accompanied by her personified ‘Anxiety’ (played by Bill Nighy), no matter how fast she goes. This bleak message appears somewhat at odds with the song’s up-beat, joyous melody. And yet, eventually, sound and content cross paths; Florence sings that, despite her anxiety, she is not trapped, but free:
I hear the music, I feel the beat
And for a moment, when I’m dancing,
I am free,
I am free
The cathartic release of ‘Music’ and ‘dance’ allow her to feel the freedom she yearns for, which is emphasised by the repeated refrain of ‘I am free’. Interestingly, she achieves this not by fighting her interiority, but by embracing it. This is depicted literally in the music video; at the end, ‘Anxiety’ comfortingly puts his arm around her as they both view the landscape. By making peace with it, she allows herself to find freedom again.
This idea of our inner selves taking control over us could be destabilising, but through their exploration of this concept in their new album, Florence + The Machine have subverted this notion by giving it the appearance of an object of horror, but ultimately portraying it with the complexity that it merits. Whether benign or malignant, peaceful or chaotic, our interiority often controls us, and in doing so gives us the space to examine ourselves and our true natures, however painful this process may be.
Listen to Dance Fever on Spotify