After 6 years of beautiful but dark and bluesy songs, Ben Howard has released a track which makes us nostalgic about days yet to come.
Two weeks ago Ben Howard, the 33 year old British singer-songwriter, released the first single for his forthcoming album Collections from the Whiteout (due 26th of March). His release What a Day is breezy, warm and approachable; something we haven’t heard from Ben in a while. The song comes just at the right time. With the extension of the Dutch Corona restrictions lying ahead, What a Day evokes a certain happiness and gratitude which we might have forgotten. It reminds of Ben’s earlier work in Every Kingdom and makes us long for the gentle sun of spring. I am thrilled for more than one reason. After two years of silence, the singer has finally made some exciting new material. Furthermore, there appears to be a break with his increasingly darker, experimental and almost psychedelic songs which worked on record, but eventually failed to produce live. While his last two albums, I Forget Where We Were (2014) and Noonday Dream (2018), were highly praised by critics, the singer appeared to have alienated himself from his live audience. In this new release, Ben Howards’ light-hearted tone has made a comeback, while the rich instrumentation and poetry are preserved.
The reception was great when Ben Howard released his first album in 2012. His melancholic, but also warm-hearted and romantic songs evoked happiness among his listeners and created a genuine intimacy. Melodically, the songs on Every Kingdom revolved around the relationship between his distinctive guitar playing and soulful voice. On his acoustic guitar, Ben used percussion and tended to play in an alternative tuning, which made his playing very interesting. He explained to a French radio station that the record covered thoughts and worries about growing up, anxieties and difficult relationships. A melodic diary so to say. For me it didn’t come as a surprise when Ben received 2 Brit Awards in 2013. Songs like Everything and Promise still bring me in a meditative state of mind, The Wolves majestically describes feelings like anger and impatience, while Keep Your Head Up never fails to bring joy.
Like many others I expected Ben to move into the direction of artists like Jack Johnson, Ed Sheeran or Passenger. The direction of neo-folkish singer-songwriters with accessible lyrics and melodies. During his tour through Europe and the UK in 2015, these “false’’ expectations caused misunderstanding between him and the attending crowds. While his fans reckoned that Ben would play some of his more cheerful and accessible old songs, he decided to perform his new record (I Forget Where We Were) solely. When I attended a concert in Amsterdam around that time, I too was unaware of the record that came out a few months earlier and anticipated the folky light-hearted work that was Every Kingdom. In reality, the songs were darker, more experimental and less acoustic. Most of the time, Ben curled over his guitar, deeply focused, and turned away from the audience. Tired of the consistent moaning and ongoing requests that came from the stands, the singer refused to play an encore.
When asked on BBC Radio 1, Ben’s only advice to other musicians was “be stubborn’’, and stubborn he most definitely is. Over the course of 4 years, the artist persistently decided to follow his own path. I Forget Where We Were was overall a more soulful project. The songs took longer than the radio-friendly 3 to 4 minutes and emphasised hurt and uncertainty. After some time of listening, nonetheless, they allowed the listener to embrace - or even celebrate - sadness. With Noonday Dream, Ben expanded on his experimental music and went beyond the depth of his second album. Songs were transformed into soundscapes with rich atmospheres, but difficult and complex melodies, which often went on for more than 6 minutes. The lyrics revealed – yet again – deeply personal reflections on life. While many fans felt lost or confused at first, Noonday Dream was critically acclaimed in the media. The Independent argued that the album “sparked the imaginations for places further afield’’, while the 405 even called his work “divine’’.
Even more than before, Ben Howard prioritized artistic freedom and authenticity above the requests and expectations of his audience. On record, that worked well. I Forget Where We Were and Noonday Dream proved to be artistic masterworks (while they may feel like hard work from time to time). On stage, however, the increasingly introverted and stubborn singer distanced himself from the audience. In 2014, Ben called his fans “a bunch of cunts’’ for requesting old songs. A review of the Guardian in 2019 revealed that the singer barely interacted with the audience during a London concert, “as if Howard didn't want to open up’’. This trend continued over the last years, where his live shows became a more complex or even uncomfortable experience. The artist didn’t seem to enjoy performing and the fans were seemingly untouched by his performance.
His new album can prove to be the solution. Rather than retrieving inspiration from his own life, deeply personal thoughts and emotions (as the singer did for his first three albums), Ben decided to look outwards for Collections of the Without. As stated in his online biography, the songs are based on news stories and collections of famous or unknown narratives. The death of a sailor called Donald Crowhurst (Crowhurst’s Meme), or the story of a man who stole and crashed a plane (The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell) are only two of many examples. In What a Day, Ben describes a healing stroll through the park with a loved one. The song is a light-hearted and warm treat that comes at the perfect time. It is rich and versatile, summons Ben’s qualities as a song-writer and takes us back to the sun.
For once, Ben Howard seems to have fully embraced the world around him. Hopefully, this outward-looking approach allows Ben to open up on stage and revive the relationship with his audience.