Saturday, April 10, 2021

Ben Howard comes into his own with new album Collections From The Whiteout

For those of you who have not been living under a rock the past decade or so you would’ve heard of Ben Howard, if not actually heard some of his music. 

I could go into an introduction of his past works but since that is so far removed from what Howard wants as an artist, I will be steering clear of looking back and look only at this new album. 

Not afraid to play with sound and not afraid of collaboration, this project included a total of fourteen musicians with Howard overseeing it all. One gets the feeling that this was very much a community project. Produced by Aaron Dessner (founding member of The National who produced for the likes of Taylor Swift, Local Natives, and Sharon Van Etten), Dessner and Howard made sure to push each other out of their comfort zones and it helped to create an intensely interesting album.

Releasing Collections From The Whiteout on the 26th of March 2021, Ben Howard gives us insight into the many forays of his mind. With an aversion to the necessity for ‘meaning’ in an album, he created one that was quite literally a collection of moments. This concept could lead to a potentially fragmented album however this is not the case. Beginning with ‘Follies Fixture’ he introduces the sounds that will be most present throughout his work: synths, percussive loops, layered vocals, all of which come together to make what is a surprisingly cohesive sound.

Ironically, Howard’s softer vocal tones don’t fight with the sometimes almost harsh synths (seen for instance in songs such as ‘Sage That She Was Burning’). I have to say to my tastes the synths are a bit grinding at some points during the album but they are never misplaced. Where he chooses to use harsh sounds they play off the general tone of the song. ‘Crowshurst Meme’ for instance leads in with deeper percussion and electronic sounds, playing off the softer piano and vocals, eventually leading to a fuller sound in the chorus which ends up feeling like a reprieve from the more distorted lead-in. ‘Unfurling’ is another such song, going nowhere one would expect it to, always turning left instead of right, the synths coupled with the lyrics resembling spoken-word poetry make this song feel almost uncomfortable. ‘The Strange Last Fight of Richard Russell’ on the other hand has a dreamier and more cinematic feel to it with synths to punctuate vocals, building with strings at the end.

All of the elements of each and every song come together cohesively. ‘You Have Your Way’ is an example of this, every facet coming together to make a full sound-scape through which the layered vocals of what could almost be a conversation between two people weave. This song showcases some of Howard’s masterful guitar playing with a tasteful riff to fade out the song. The percussion is particularly interesting in songs like ‘Finders Keepers’ and ‘Sorry Kid’, definitely owing to help from jazz-influenced drummers recruited to work on this album. I especially enjoy the lyricism in ‘Finders Keepers’, a song about finding things that should always have been lost.

For the more ‘listener-friendly' songs (although I do happen to think this album is surprisingly easy to listen to as a whole, despite its contrasting elements), look to ‘What A Day’ and ‘Far Out’. ‘What A Day’ is a personal favourite of mine, sounding almost 70s in its make-up and definitely more upbeat than some of his other songs, rounding out with a guitar solo (tasteful, not wailing, not overdone). ‘Far Out’ on the other hand feels much more like a social commentary piece about wanting to escape the current state of affairs. However, one is lulled into this song with a much more acoustically-led beginning which only enhances Howard’s soft vocals.

Lyrically, I think Howard is a genius. All of his songs deserve mention for the lyricism but for the purposes of this review I have singled out a few of my favourites. ‘Metaphysical Cantations’ is a dreamy song, which uses a good blend of synths and guitar to help the lyrics paint a picture. What is almost arguably a repetitive song is broken down and stripped in the bridge, offering some change, before building it back up again to punctuate the lyricism. 

‘Make Arrangements’ is another example: the lyrics themselves are very rhythmic and somehow, much like the jazz percussion of some of the other pieces, fits where it maybe shouldn’t - it defies rhythmic expectations. The song that especially draws me in however is ‘Rookery’. It has a very Nick Drake feel to it and rests on Howard’s vocals and the guitar playing he is so known for. In the occasional song, I found his vocals getting buried under layers of sound however this one lets his vocals shine. A song about disruption and chaos in someone’s mind is only too relatable and he manages to make it beautiful even in its ‘futility’. ‘Buzzard’ is the way Ben Howard chooses to say goodbye to us in this album: short and sweet, subtle but painting a vivid picture.

Ben Howard is never one for staying in the same place, constant forward motion is the name of the game. I for one can’t wait to see what he does next, but I think one thing is sure, it will be different from the last. 

- Chloe Boehm



Image: Official album cover Ben Howard - Collections from the Whiteout Lyrics and Tracklist | Genius

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