By Ned Vessey
One of Britain’s most quietly intriguing artists returns with an album that is both familiar and refreshingly different to what has gone before.
Although it has been ten years since Ben Howard’s first album, Every Kingdom, the singer-songwriter is still plagued by its success. Howard swiftly moved away from the folk-pop sound of that record, beginning with the dark, agonising reverb of 2014’s I Forget Where We Were – an album that feels like a cry of pain. Despite the anger of fans who wanted another Every Kingdom, and who persisted in shouting “play Keep Your Head Up” at his live shows, Howard resolutely ploughed his own path.
His determination to do so, to make the music that he wants to make is deeply admirable. That determination reached its peak with 2018’s Noonday Dream, an album rich in ambience and cryptic, haunting lyrics and about as far from the sunny guitar and crooning of 2011’s single “Only Love” as you can get.
In his fourth album, Collections From the Whiteout, Howard has combined elements of all his previous work, while retaining the threads that tied them all together – his high-class songwriting, distinctive voice, and inventive guitar playing. He has also opened up to collaboration beyond his long-time band for the first time. This joint approach came in the form of working with The National’s Aaron Dessner – perhaps best known at the moment for his work with Taylor Swift – and a whole host of other musicians in Dessner’s extensive phone book. The result of all of this is a record that feels fresh and new, yet which is still distinctively a Ben Howard record.
This is exemplified by the standout track, Sage That She Was Burning, which features bizarre electronic distortion in the intro, followed by Howard’s mournful, wise voice and lyrics which would be best studied in an English Literature class. In the song’s quieter moments, instrumentation subsides to gentle guitar strumming, before Yussef Dayes’s (one of Dessner’s contacts) drums build back in to take the song to a breathtaking conclusion.
This sums up Collections, which is a record of moments rather than of the overarching moods or themes which characterised Howard’s last two releases. These moments can comprise a standout lyric – “every sight of you I know is worth the keeping” (Follie’s Fixture) – or a shimmer of treated electric guitar on What a Day, or the feeling of intimacy on stripped-down acoustic track Rookery.
It could be easy enough for all of this to be too much. The range of collaborators, of sounds, of ideas could easily have resulted in a bloated, scattergun record. However, the brevity of the tracks and Howard’s voice hold it all together. The latter is particularly exquisite – delicate, frail and wise – and a far cry from the surfer-boy crooning of Howard’s early hits.
However, the warmth that characterised those songs is present in a developed form here. Collections sounds warmer, breezier, more open than I Forget Where We Were or Noonday Dream. This openness is reflected in the songwriting too, with Howard looking outward – to stories in the news, to family anecdotes, to tragedies such as that of the British sailor Donald Crowhurst – for inspiration, using these stories as a platform to create his own worlds within the songs. He manages to strike a balance between this newfound outward gaze and his old talent for introspection – there are plenty of examples of both on Collections. Ultimately, the striking of a balance is Collections’ greatest strength. The record combines elements of all he has done before, whilst managing to still sound new, and different.
This might not be Howard’s best album. For me, that accolade is reserved for Noonday Dream. It is, however, his most intriguing and most complete. It is a demonstration that one of Britain’s most inventive, underrated artists is still on excellent form.
Standout track: Sage That She Was Burning.
You can listen to Ben Howard’s new album here.
Image Credit: Ned Vessey