A Theology of Florence & the Machine’s Ceremonials

The setting for the video of 'No Light No Light', the second single from 2011's Ceremonials – a traditional church building complete with boys’ choir and thick pillar candles – is a fitting stage upon which to play out the theology of this album. A suffocating sense of traditions, old religion and an exploration of the extra-material world is interwoven with the ever-present graveyards + angels + drowning imagery that one expects when encountering a Florence & the Machine record.

Album opener ‘Only if for a Night’ is reminiscent of ‘Rabbit Heart’ from the previous album, with its talk of ghosts and ceremonials sitting comfortably with the pagan-esque sacrifice language of the latter, while ‘Shake It Out’ tells of the burden of feeling the Devil at your back:

it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back
so shake him off.

The concern here seems to be with the way that knowledge of sin can compromise one’s ability to dance, but a serious recognition of the weight of guilt is also present as

regrets collect like old friends
here to relive your darkest moments
I can see no way
and all of the ghouls come out to play
and every demon wants his pound of flesh.

Not only do these lines point to a world outside of what we can touch and see, they also subtly recognise that regret and remorse are consequences of sin. We can skip around the bush or we can just name these ‘ghouls’ and ‘demons’ as the devil and admit that he indulges us in our introspective shame and delights when we are burdened by our unholiness. The antidote to this is, of course, turning our eyes away from ourselves and back to Christ, in whom we are infinitely accepted by God. Florence declares there is no such hope to look to:

I’ve been a fool and I’ve been blind
I can never leave the past behind
I can see no way.

Aware of her wrongdoing and distressed with the root of it, she strikingly declares that

I am done with my graceless heart
so tonight I’m gonna cut it out and then restart.

Our gracelessness points directly to our capacity for graciousness, hindered as it is at the present time by sin, but intended as it is for restoration and renewal. This is not how we were intended to be and it rightly frustrates us, our lack of grace pointing to God’s abundant grace. These lines identify exactly the need for a change of heart, "for the mouth speaks what the heart is full of" (Matthew 12:34). Towards the conclusion, the lyrics juxtapose a desire to hope with a flippant abandon to whatever the world might throw at her:

and I’m ready to suffer and I’m ready to hope
cause looking for heaven
find the devil in me
but what the hell
I’m gonna let it happen to me.

This succumbing to a personal fall gathers pace in ‘Lover to Lover’, where she hopelessly sings

I believe there’s no salvation for me now
no space among the clouds
and I’ve seen that I’m heading down
but that’s alright.

The road that she sees herself "heading down" is played out in the central motif that takes on a circular form and offers no release:

road to road
bed to bed
lover to lover
and black to red.

Roads, beds and lovers are presented as equal in insignificance. There is no offering of life in these lines, only repetition and meaninglessness.

'Never Let Me Go’ not only bears the same name as an excellent Kazuo Ishiguro novel, it also reverts the imagery back to the familiar drowning scenes Florence is so fond of, depicting a peculiar kind of salvation:

and the arms of the ocean are carrying me
and all this devotion was rushing out of me
and the crashes are heaven
for a sinner like me
but the arms of the ocean delivered me.

How ironic that the ocean, such a symbol of chaos and fear for the Hebrews, in this instance is made out to offer deliverance for the sinner. In reality, of course, it is only a temporary escape from reality and will quickly lead to disillusionment (even if it does make for poignant lyricism). This sinner would rather be delivered into a loving relationship with the living God by his own work, than delivered to a Watery Unknown.

© 2013 Angeline Liles
Published by the kind permission of the author.