Cherwell

‘I have only ever tried to show you beauty’: Florence Welch’s ‘Useless Magic’

Photo: Burak Cingi/Redferns

Loyal followers of Florence Welch have long been aware of her creative ability extending beyond song writing. The ethereal Alice-rebels-in-wonderland visuals created for ‘Rabbit Heart’ (2009) and the chaptered ‘Odyssey’ which tells individual songs including ‘Delilah’ and ‘What Kind of Man’ (2015) have long evidenced her outstanding abilities as not only a singer, but as an artist. When ‘Useless Magic’ was announced, we were told to expect an assemblage of her lyrics and poetry. Through the addition of visual elements, the anthology encapsulates both her well-known lyrics and private scribblings, allowing an illumination into the mind behind ‘Lungs’, ‘Ceremonials’, ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’ and her newly-released poetry.

The preface immediately binds together Welch’s handwritten admissions and her printed words, a relationship which continues throughout the collection. The scanned page upon opening reads “I make songs to tie people to me” – we are immediately aware that, for Welch, writing is a call for others to remain. Telling us that songs speak to her, arise only through her as medium, she says “I am a conduit but totally oblivious to its wisdom”. Her lyrics and poetry, which she believes are no longer separated but have “started to bleed into each other”, flow through her voice and pen.

Separated into chapters according to album, the collection spans the progression of Welch’s song writing. Throughout ‘Lungs’, a breath of wind passes through pages resembling trees, lyrics tell of dreaming and beating bird wings, intertwined with William Morris prints torn away to reveal her handwriting. Flowers establish dominion, the chapter being filled with their different forms, notably an illustration by Welch of sharp-edged flowers with jagged leaves and the words “I don’t want anything now or ever again”, presented next to the lyrics for ‘My Boy Builds Coffins’, a song expressing the beauty and unique form each individual’s death will take. Beginning in this chapter, and continuing throughout, are individual entries by Welch expressing feelings, fears, conversations with an unknown auditor. One entry, “‘I love you’, she said/ he replied ‘that’s a shame’” seems to encapsulate a feeling of haunting unrequitedness, surrounded by sprawling biro lilies and twice drawn circles. ‘Lungs’ becomes frequented by John William Waterhouse, including his ‘Lady of Shallot’ and ‘Ophelia’. Depicting flame-haired women surrounded by branches above a body of water, they reflect both the muse-like stature of Florence herself and her preoccupation with water imagery which prevails throughout every album.

Visuals take on their own role in expressing the meaning of the collection. Paintings by various artists shed light on meaning of individual songs – featured artists in ‘Ceremonials’ include Gustav Klimt, Tamara De Lempika and Botticelli. Klimt’s Water Serpents I falls next to the final page of ‘Heartlines’ wherein an image of two golden heads, held together in an ecstasy of falling vines and pale closed eyelids, seem to reflect Welch’s adjoining lyric “But know, in some way, I’m there with you”. A continuous thread, both in ‘Ceremonials’ and the rest of the collection, is the presence of religious, particularly Catholic, iconography. ‘The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child’ by Botticelli and Delacroix’s ‘The Virgin of the Sacred Heart’ allow a tone of divinity to reign ever-present, fitting for an album and a woman constantly wrestling with such themes as violence, love and death. For Welch, Catholic symbolism hurtles into 21st century concerns of missed phone calls and lies told by Hollywood.

Through the addition of her own sketches and notes, the collection begins to transition so softly into her own poetry that the final section is a natural progression. Welch’s poetry was first released in Chapters 5 and 6 of ‘The Odyssey’ as an auditory transition between two songs. Included in the original form – handwritten on Chateau Marmont stationary – we are reminded that Florence’s poetry is her own, personal and confessional and full of desire for the transcendental. One poem murmurs of a desired metamorphosis into another body, to be “out of your own and consumed by another”. Each line falls like a passage of water, slipping like channels which echo of salt and thirst and loss to sea.

Her poetry is ceremonious in its simplicity. ‘I Cannot Write About This’ exorcises a “wordless thing” which is “altogether/ Too Grown Up/ Too Sad/ Too ‘the best for us both’/ To put into poetry”. She expresses an almost child-like fear of something too far grown, too steeped in reality to cope with. There is a recurring presence of the spectral, and a recognition that we are susceptible to becoming so, with ‘I Guess I Won’t Write Poetry’ describing how “Being ‘Famous’/ Is like being an anxious ghost”, for “You are an apparition/ A figment of your own imagination”. Welch takes the boundary of the real and ethereal, the human and preternatural and plays it like a harp string. This boundary oscillates in the reality of the city in ‘Wedding’, opening through the stanza “London is a graveyard of ex-boyfriends/ family trauma/ and scenes that smashed themselves to pieces”. There is an almost Eliot-like perception of London; it becomes a hell-scape, a city of daylight ghosts and fallen ruins of memory. The collection is a beautiful, more-than-human hybrid of private musings and universal experiences. What emerges is a beautiful, multi-media tapestry of the mind behind one of music’s most unique voices.