The enthralling third LP from Ben Howard is his bravest yet. In years to come we’ll be picking apart it’s stories whilst still discovering its many hidden facets and sounds.
It’s been four years since Ben Howard released his sophomore LP ‘I Forget Where We Were’ an utterly captivating, auditory masterpiece that turned Howard from a singer-songwriter into a fully fledged artist. Its dark pallet was a remarkable shift away from the spritely Forrest anthems of his debut ‘Every Kingdom’ yet still found itself as a natural progression of his sound.
Third major album release ‘Noonday Dream’ goes further down the rabbit hole of experimentation and sonic manipulation. Those vocals that were once full of hope are now just mumbles, like whispers in the wind. You'll find yourself searching inside the tracks, trying not to find just the meaning in the lyrics but also the much more minute details hidden away in the instrumentation.
A foreboding sense of uneasiness flows throughout the albums 51-minute runtime, with only just 9 proper full-length tracks Howard still manages to take you on a journey that seemingly lasts a lifetime. it’s an exhausting yet rewarding listen. It's the soundtrack to a long wander through a scorching desert with its conclusion being the point you finally uncover the oasis you’ve been searching for.
The album’s most accessible moments come at the start; ‘Nica Libres At Dusk’ is an epic progressive folk track whose beauty lies in its delicate guitar melodies and lullaby style chorus. ‘Towing The Line’ is eerily harrowing yet utterly captivating, it’s relatively short in length compared to the rest of the albums longer and more experimental efforts but it manages to make double the impression on the listener in just half the time. It’s poetic lyrics hint at darker moments in a relationship mixed with self-doubt and depression. it's words I’m still meticulously trying to break down many listens on.
From here on out the melodies become fewer, the concepts become larger and consequently, soundscapes start to form demanding your focus. ‘A Boat To An Island On The Wall’ is a gargantuan song that constantly builds and grows. Starting inconspicuously and acoustically with voices and murmurs in the background, transporting you to a crowded bar where you are sat watching a local unsigned act plugging away, immersed in their craft. Midway through this changes, the song shifting like an experimental Bon Iver track minus the falsetto before unfurling itself with a wall of electric guitar sounds, the feedback almost screeching into your brain. It’s just a shame it’s ‘Part 2’ continuation later on in the album is a slow-moving, nearly whole instrumental with very few interesting or standout qualities.
‘Someone in The Doorway’ has a feverish pace to it, the drumbeats are hip-hop in nature. This time Howard’s voice is at it’s clearest, feeling lighter without the echoes and computerized manipulations. It’s a refreshing change coming at the right point in the record. Even his delivery has an urgency to it, sharp and bold, this adds an heft and power to his lyrics reminiscent of the great wordsmith Leonard Cohen.
There’s a misfire with the albums only interlude ‘All Down The Mines’, It's unashamedly brief and strikingly to the point as you hear Howard’s echo-filled vocals. Indeed sounding like he's trying to reach out from an abyss deep below. Unfortunately it offers little more than being a neat little trick. Much more interesting is ‘The Defeat’ a dark and jittery track that see's Howard spitting out his sentences before sharply diverting onto separate tangents mid-word. His erratic ramblings “Where does the robber go, where does the robber go to repent?” are unsettling, especially when intertwined with the crashing symbols that surround the track but when you slow it down and take in all the words, it's completely thought-provoking.
Romantic bitterness rears its head once again on ‘There’s Your Man’. It’s delightfully spiteful, with a groove and melody reminiscent of Howard’s earliest material. The melodies juxtaposing themselves with the animosity present in his tone as he looks on, assumedly unrequitedly, at a friends relationship “Can't stand the way they talk to one another” he croons.
The album ends at it’s bleakest point “it’s so peaceful here, no one to fuck it up”. We now find Howard contempt with the loneliness he’s been battling throughout the record, or is he? sarcastic overtones flutter over each word and each slight pause. However, That’s the beauty of this record, nothing is ever as it seems.
After multiple listens, I still find myself trying to decipher the man behind the words, I dread pressing play to start the journey over again, knowingly jumping back into Howard’s dark abyss, searching around like a flashlight trying to pierce through his darkness. It’s refreshingly unpolished and it’s Howard at his most raw. You’ll feel mentally exhausted from its barrage of instrumentation and gloomy lyrics, yet by the end you’ll be left utterly enthralled. That's because sometimes a record doesn’t have to be pretty or pleasant… to be beautiful.