Last Friday, English indie rock band Florence + the Machine propelled listeners down to new depths with the release of their latest haunting single, “Mermaids.” Cut from the group’s fifth LP “Dance Fever,” the song now joins the album’s “complete edition” nearly a year after its initial release.
The group, led by London-born singer Florence Welch, teased its newest single two weeks prior to its release in a 21-second clip of Welch in a candle-lit bathtub sporting a glimmering mermaid tail and singing the song’s first verse. The teaser begins with Welch singing earnestly, hands to chest, her piercing vocals descending from a sea of serenity to a raging undercurrent. The clip ends with Welch slowly submerging completely underwater as the music intensifies.
The song begins with siren-like harmonies from Welch. Classically trained and well-known for her vast vocal capabilities, Welch’s tonal acrobatics lure in listeners and keeps them mesmerized through her entrancing high notes and powerful low belts.
She is remarkable in her ability to catch the attention of new listeners while also enthralling long-time fans. On top of producing yet another vocally stunning song, Welch masterfully crafted a storyline brought to life through her music — both in direct lyrical references to past hits and in her dark fairytale aesthetic.
Starting off strong, the song’s intro — “I thought that I was hungry for love / Maybe I was just hungry for blood” — is a direct reference to “Hunger,” a song from the band’s fourth studio album, “High as Hope.” But the band quickly moves on to set the scene, beginning — as Welch often does — with a spiritual reference that adds a sacredness to the sound. The following lyric, “Seafoam woman on the shore,” is an allusion to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty and love, whose legend claims she was born from seafoam on the island of Cyprus.
While this reference may leave listeners expecting a love song, the intro’s final line gives listeners a better idea of what they’re actually getting into: “All the mermaids have sharp teeth / Razor blades all in your feet.”
This jarring imagery mirrors the grim fairytale of “The Little Mermaid,” written by the father of mystical storybook horror, Hans Christian Andersen. In this morbid story, the wistful mermaid exchanges her tail for legs to pursue a human above water but is cursed by the sea witch to feel “as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives” with every step.
In a fascinating transition, the song melts into its verses, immersing listeners into a young Welch’s party days in her English homeland.
Welch can’t separate the glamorous lifestyle of “huggin’ girls that smelled like Britney Spears and coconuts” from the “mermaid hair” and “teeth so sharp,” a reminder of how Welch’s hunger for acceptance conflicts with — and possibly even strips away — her humanity.
This self-destructive search for connection is most evident in the chorus, a hallowed chanting of the “cheerful oblivion” Welch lived in. Welch’s insertion of nostalgic longing is a compelling lyrical risk. In merging personal memories with this unsettling reprise of a classic child’s tale, Welch strings together a smartly woven narrative of her experiences with living life in “cheerful oblivion,” hidden within the lines of captivating folklore.
The commitment to this oblivion introduced in the third verse — “You only get one night upon the shore / So dance like you’ve never danced before” — is not an unusual idea for the band. In fact, several tracks on “Dance Fever” — including “Free” and “Choreomania” — directly convey the singer’s willingness to honor celebratory expression through her body, fully devoting herself to the feeling. But letting loose has a dark side, “And the dance floor is filling up with blood.”
The bridge ties the song together perfectly, describing how the mermaids emerge once a year “to sacrifice a human heart.” In the original telling of “The Little Mermaid” by Andersen, the sea witch offers the mermaid a loophole for if she were to fail in winning over the prince — her life could be spared if she could stab him in the heart.
Though in Andersen’s telling, the loveless mermaid chooses to not stab the prince, Welch’s mermaids are not bound by the same reluctance. The mermaids chose to sacrifice others rather than abandon their reckless pursuit of an unattainable love year after year, reminiscent of the stoic lifestyle Welch describes in “King,” also on “Dance Fever.”
From lyrical artistry to vocal and instrumental divinity, members of Florence + the Machine have again proven themselves as sorcerers of musical storytelling and avant-garde audio. The last minute of the song is devoid of lyrics — just a gut-wrenching blend of deep percussion, eerie brass and suspenseful strings that fade out gently, as if dragging the listener into a “cheerful oblivion” of their own, lulled to the seafloor by Welch’s unwavering golden voice and hypnotic lyrical genius.
Sofia Barnett is a University News editor overseeing the faculty and higher education beat. She is a sophomore from Texas studying history, politics and nonfiction writing.