Even before singer Florence Welch materialises on the first night of her European tour, her arrival is foreshadowed by her set. At the back of the stage is a table – or possibly an altar – dressed with candelabras covered in gauzy white fabric, like a giant wedding cake made by spiders. (The “rotting grandeur” of Miss Havisham’s house in Dickens is very much a reference.)
Half a dozen large chandeliers trail more frayed white chiffon, their opulence laced with a hint of decay and implicit danger. (What if they fell?) Since her debut LP, 2009’s Lungs, launched Florence + the Machine on to the international scene, Welch has mixed floaty maximalism with intimations of catastrophe. The drowned Ophelia was a major reference of her 2011 album Ceremonials. Many of Welch’s vast, lush songs since have echoed with iterations of her anxiety or brutal self-questioning. Dog Days Are Over, still a keystone of Welch’s sets, repeatedly warns that scary horses are coming and it’s best to run.
“Did I build this ship to wreck?” she wonders on the track of the same name. It could apply to a relationship or a career. Particularly powerful tonight, Big God finds Welch singing from the gut about pulling mountains down to the sea in a grandiose fit of heartbreak.
Eventually, Welch emerges as though out of the ether, clad in a floaty, off-white Gucci gown, all bat-wings and ruches, to unfurl yet another album imbued by disaster. Many in this sold-out Paris crowd are dressed for the occasion in capes, headdresses and distressed ball-wear. Released in May, Dance Fever is Florence + the Machine’s excellent lockdown record, one in which Welch, in reliably over-dramatic fashion, blames herself for Covid.
Quietly, internally, she had wished for a less punishing touring schedule. In reply, a pandemic shut down the world. Songs such as Girls Against God find Welch raging at the almighty for shuttering her churches – the arenas Florence + the Machine swiftly found to be their natural home. Lockdown found her regretting that wish, watching horror films and vacuuming (she was “Florence and the fucking Hoover,” she joked to Vogue).
But Dance Fever isn’t just about the live music shutdown. It’s an album about performance, particularly female performance. Other songs weigh up “the scale of my ambition” and how to square that with the daunting prospect of children.
The title of Dance Fever takes its inspiration from the phenomenon of choreomania – public fits that followed the plague in Europe in which people would dance themselves into a frenzy. Like so many things in Welch’s cosmology, dancing feels like a double-edged thing. Tonight, the singer invites everyone to cut loose, in celebration at having come through two years of fear. (Here she’s in good company: Beyoncé has an album in that vein.)
Free tackles Welch’s anxiety – with their hands, she and the crowd vividly mime how it “picks me up” and “puts me down” – but asserts she is happiest whirling about or running pell-mell from one side of the stage to the other, her mighty voice never registering the effort. (The emotional climax is a wordless bellow.) She even makes it down a narrow passageway all the way to the mixing desk, caressing palms as she goes. Remarkably, considering how carnivorous a crowd can be, her fans are gentle with her.
As the set enters its closing heat, Welch mischievously asks the audience for “a human sacrifice”. No one is actually dragged up on to the white altar. What Welch wants is for people to be offered up to sit on each other’s shoulders.
Human sacrifice, though, remains very much a theme. A few songs on Dance Fever reflect on Welch’s reliance on alcohol in the early days of the band. Morning Elvis tells of missing a visit to Graceland because she was unable to leave a hotel bathroom. (She thinks Elvis would have understood.)
And yet here Florence + her Machine are again, going out “to war to find material to sing”. Many records, particularly those of female artists, register no little ambivalence about being caught in the cycle of fraught creativity, releasing and touring. Working for the Knife, a key track from US singer-songwriter Mitksi’s Laurel Hell album, is just one that wonders gloomily if grinding toil is sensible, be that creative work or a 9-to-5.
On tonight’s evidence, the conclusion remains: yes. Moreover, the song Choreomania moots the possibility that Welch is in fact a rock star, rather than some swooning pre-Raphaelite muse. As she punches the air, hammers her chest on her percussive tracks and races Mick Jagger for the onstage step count record, it’s hard not to agree. Despite all the Gucci on tap, Welch doesn’t indulge in a single costume change all evening, as many female pop divas might. She just sweats the one frock into submission.