“I don’t know how to be / What I wanted to be when I was five,” Emily Sprague sang during “Vacation” in 2015. Seven years later, there’s now a tinge of self-certainty in Sprague’s lyrics. “I have more to learn and yet / This time I am knowing,” she sings on “Feathers,” the penultimate track off Florist’s new, self-titled effort. Florist (Sprague, Jonnie Baker, Rick Spataro and Felix Walworth) has been around for nearly a decade, with four LPs and a handful of EPs to show for it, and their importance in contemporary singer/songwriter music reaches back about as far. “Unholy Faces,” in which Sprague sang about eating souls and letting go of fault lines atop lush pedal steel, was one of the most arresting tracks of 2015; Emily Alone tracked solitude, nature and the loss of a parent with steady, minimal arrangements in 2019, and stands as a pre-pandemic compass, pointing us toward a patient transition through loss.
Florist initially wandered the territory of language-arts rock, making warm folk tunes in league with those of their labelmates Lomelda, Hovvdy and Frankie Cosmos. But Sprague’s songwriting has long stood out from her contemporaries’, as she and the band are still making what they know best while exploring a storytelling that is more profound, quick-witted and deeply resonant. Sprague writes of death and emotional transitions in the same way we live through them: Our griefs are unique and stirring moments that often bring us together; we are tethered to both the ways our hearts sink and the ways they return to the surface.
In the lead-up to Florist’s release, Sprague noted that the band’s decision to name it after themselves was because “it’s a collaboration” and a product of their “one life.” Thus, the result is a batch of songs with minimalistic arrangements toeing maximalist lines, the first Florist record with a full band since 2017’s If Blue Could Be Happiness. It sounds like Sprague has a hand in every note, but there’s a dynamic, well-populated soundscape beneath her vocals. “These are my best friends and the music is the way that it is because of that,” she adds.
Florist is a special record that stands apart from Emily Alone. The former is denser, clocking in at a mountainous 19 tracks, and finds Sprague picking up the pieces that inspired the latter. It’s a (mostly) joyful portrait of friendship, family and affection, told from both first- and second-person points of view. It’s not the first folk record to flirt with almost two-dozen songs this year, as 2022 has already seen the release of Big Thief’s heavy, sprawling and critically revered Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You. But Florist’s contribution is much different and, in some ways, better. Florist’s arrival finds the band tinkering with new horns, blooming synths, roving percussion and sampling. The atmospheric landscapes behind Sprague’s guitar on previous albums are now filled up.
These 19 songs properly complement Sprague’s solo output, in which she creates ambient albums on modular synths. As much as it is very much a folk record, Florist is its own climate, a true suite of compositions that balance each other out and are full of bursting potential, but never overstay their welcome. “Red Bird Pt 2 (Morning),” the record’s first single, is a narrative sequel to “Moon Begins” on Emily Alone, in which Sprague writes about her dad, especially about how she and him navigate memories of her mom. “Did you ever think / We’d both be back here looking out at this beautiful place / Seeing nothing but the glow of memory / And a void in our vision where she would be?” she sings delicately. It’s a stirring moment of a daughter trying to make sense of this maternal hole in her world, and Sprague approaches it with such a poetic voice. One of the record’s most poignant lines, “She’s in the birdsong, she won’t be gone,” acts as Florist’s thesis: Love and family will endure through anything.
On “Spring in Hours,” Sprague tinkers with sampling, while Walworth’s percussion pulses widely and Baker’s saxophone runs tight. It’s a romantic ode to vulnerability, and Sprague’s meticulous lyricism conveys a beautiful image of her falling deeply in love with someone she trusts. “You are the kind of person I want to show it all to / Come through the open portal / It sparkles like sun on water,” she sings. The soundscape on “Dandelion” arrives similarly, like a ballroom waltz fused with plucking, fairytale synths. The lyrics of “43” are like the Florist of old, conjuring imagery of nature and healing, and the song is one of the few “guitar-heavy” tracks on the record, as it gives way to bedroom-pop chords and a jangly solo.
Sprague is an avid collector of synthesizers, and that admiration shines through on the record’s centerpiece, “Sci-fi Silence.” It’s a sparse narrative, but beautifully brief lyrically—here, Sprague showcases that a gut-punch doesn’t have to be forceful if it lands in the right place. Two moments from the song stick out: the beginning, when she sings “You’re the only thing inside I can’t follow through the night / You’re the only thing I want that I can’t find,” and the second verse, where she sings, “I found what it means to be moving on / Coming from the thing I knew as love.” If Emily Alone was Sprague mining the unspeakable lows of mourning, then Florist is her rediscovering the joys on either side of that heartache.
Any record nearing 20 songs likely has fat to trim—that’s par for the course. However, most of Florist’s wordless inclusions feel properly placed. “Bells Pt 1-3” are beautiful vignettes dispersed across the record that trade in acoustic guitars for cosmic dreaming. “Variation” and “Reprise” sound like atmospheric intermissions borne onto the album via Sprague tinkering with her synthesizer collection. “Jonnie on the Porch” closes the LP with two minutes of Baker’s meandering, ambient keys. If, for some reason, instrumentals just aren’t your thing, rest assured there are beautiful and devastating songs waiting for you beyond them. But even then, they are important parts of what this record really is, sonically: a meticulously crafted body of work made by a quartet who are utterly in sync with each other. Florist is a soundscape of potential, as if even the album’s own barriers are expanding. There are familiar turns afoot, like Sprague and company’s use of chirping insects as instruments, but there are also gratifying inclusions, like elements of jazz and electronica, or a stray keyboard that sometimes sounds like a pedal steel.
On Emily Alone, Sprague isolated herself and tried articulating her trauma solo. There, she dispersed a fragmented lyric throughout: “I could have the reasons why.” It was Sprague’s attempt at answering the lingering question of “Why did all of this happen?,” and the urgency of it immediately points toward the death of her mom and her cross-country move. But on Florist, three years have allowed the answer to finally run clear: The reasons she is searching for cannot be named or held. Instead, grief opens up a world of healing that looks a lot like the world that came before, where those with whom we choose to share our broken hearts become our family.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.