Ben Howard has to be one of the greatest breakthrough artists of the century. The success of his debut album ‘Every Kingdom’ in 2011 earned him a Mercury Prize Nomination as well as two BRIT Awards in 2013 for Best Breakthrough Act and Best Solo Male Artist, besting Olly Murs, Plan B and Calvin Harris! Off the bat of his performance of ‘Only Love‘ at the BRITS, he went to the Top 10 in the singles chart (previously at 190!) and number 4 in the album charts (previously 46), proving that people had just to hear him perform live in order to be captivated by his music.
I first heard Ben Howard in Autumn 2011, when I was starting my MA in Music. I’d moved in with some previously unknown housemates who fortunately for me were big Ben Howard fans. The album was always being played around the house in the evening, before heading out. It seemed to be the girls’ getting ready music, which was great for me, as I quickly became accustomed to it and loved it. When I found out that they were going to see him perform at Liverpool Academy, I quickly booked a ticket (balcony seated as this was all that was left) to what was one of the best gigs I have ever been to. The soundscapes created by the two multi-instrumentalists (India Bourne and album producer Chris Bond) were stunning and have stayed with me til this day, 3 years and a day later, when ‘I Forget Where We Were‘ was released.
It can be hard to follow such a monumental debut, but the new record does so graciously and confidently, not relying on the tried and tested format of Every Kingdom’s songs, but reaching further, digging deeper and delving darker than its predecessor. Ben’s vocals are bang on point, as you would come to expect, but his acoustic guitar has been replaced with an echoed electric guitar, which shakes your bones from the introduction of ‘Small Things‘ to the snare drum rolls at the end of ‘All Is Now Harmed‘. The album weighs in at 54 minutes, with just ten tracks (as with Every Kingdom) and is a complete sensory overload; emotional without over-sentimentality, gritty but not unnecessarily so, with thought-provoking song titles and lyrics to match the calibre of the music.
The album was previewed live on Radio One from Maida Vale on 23rd September, where Zane Lowe hosted a special version of his show, the first time ever that an album was played live in full on Radio 1 (and weeks before the official release). The gig was streamed live online and was made available to watch afterwards for about a week, but is unfortunately down now. Hopefully it will be released on DVD sometime soon! Wouldn’t that make a great Christmas present?!
Here is my track for track breakdown of the album. Have a read, give it a listen and if you like it, buy the record and support the artist. Strap yourself in, find some good headphones and somewhere comfy to listen and prepare yourself for the Ben Howard Experience!
1. Small Things
The opening to the track features an echoey electric guitar with harmonics and pitch-bends, which preempt the a psychedelic vocal melody. The textural varieties in the song vary from soft vocals over single-strummed guitar to a cacophony of sound at the end of the track, skillfully blended together, like clouds forming a storm. The lyrics are fantastic too, creating vivid images in the mind to accompany the music :
“If buildings fell, at least we’d be in matrimony
I can’t control
The words kaleidoscope inside my head”
2. Rivers In Your Mouth
With a driving beat like ‘Keep Your Head Up‘, Rivers In Your Mouth is a real contrast to the opener of the album, already shaking up any expectations that you may have for the record. In comparison to the brooding start to the album, this track is almost a pop song, except with thoughtful lyrics, John Martyn style sweeping guitars in the background and a 90 second instrumental ending
3. I Forget Where We Were
On first listen, this track was my favourite from the get go and I think many people will agree with me on that. The slow fade in to the powerful guitar chords and a Jeff Buckley style passion in his voice combined with the phenomenal production of Chris Bond, giving everything its own space to breathe and making the track feel lighter than air when it is really crammed with more goodness than a Christmas cake.
I wasn’t listening,
I was stung by all of us, the blind leading out the bored
And as per usual,
You were skipping and laughing eyes at the bedroom door
Don’t take it so seriously, no
Only time is ours, the rest we’ll just wait and see
Maybe you’re right, babe, maybe
4. In Dreams
The first acoustic led track of the album, the fast and furious guitar is matched by a fast-paced bouncing vocals with a folk sensibility. The percussion and bass sit just right below Ben’s vocals and guitar, with string parts, backing vocals and other wonderful sounds filling the sound spectrum. The mid-8 has a reminiscent ‘Diamonds‘ flavour to it, but not in an overt trying to replicate it kind of way. It’s more like seeing an old friend across the street that makes you smile, even if you can’t talk to them.
5. She Treats Me Well
Another acoustic led track, this one sounds like it’s gonna turn out to be a Paolo Nutini track like ‘Last Request‘, with the lyrics and tone of an Americana track, but still keeping a Britishness about it. The combination of complex finger-picking mostly major extended chords gives the song a happy vibe, which is contrasted by a soft vocal which is quite flat and low, undecorated and simple. The chorus is really warming with a lovely keyboard line creating a beautiful texture, as the chorus ends with a ring of harmonics. Quite understated, this song should not be underestimated or under-appeciated: it’s a gem!
6. Time Is Dancing
At just shy of 7 minutes in length with a strongly pulsing bassline, this track has a slight downbeat electronica feeling to it. It’s a bit less accessible than the previous tracks on the album, but after a couple of listens I really got into this song too. It comes and goes like ebbs of waves on the shore, slowly but persistently tugging at your heart, with long instrumental sections that will surely sound fantastic when performed live.
Evergreen fits in really well with ‘Small Things‘ and ‘I Forget Where We Were‘, with simple melodies, pitch-bent guitar lines and an echo chamber in which it all takes places. With wisps of ‘Old Pine‘ in the melody, the song feels quite melancholy with the instrumental halfway through the second verse throws traditional structures into disarray. The chorus feels more like a verse, the verse like a waning lament, but somehow it still feels pretty good. Strange!
8. End Of The Affair
At 7 minutes 47 seconds long, you’d be right to expect big things from this track. The guitar and the rest of the instruments work closely with the vocal, moving together like dance partners in a busy ballroom, transfixed by each other and ignorant to whatever else was happening around them. Then about 2/3rd of the way through the song drastically changes into a headline festival anthem without any obvious melody for the audience to get attached to. Regardless, this is the song where peope will “lose it” in the audience. I hope the moment is capture live and Youtube’d often as it will never disappoint. All in all, the track feels to short if anything at the end; Ben Howard you clever fella!
A beautiful track, balancing the musical phrases with the melodic lines, and interweaving the like threads of hair in a braid. Lovely lyrics too. Not really much that I can add. Just listen to it!
You were the boat that bridged
In the tale of Conrad
We will never be the change
To the weather and the sea and you knew that
You were the boat that bridged
In the tale of Conrad
Oh I loved you with the good
And the careless of me
But it all goes back
10. All Is Now Harmed
The gentle patter of drums and fascinating melodic rhythm of All Is Now Harmed over the ambient texture bring the album to a slightly surprising climax (in the middle of the track) before fading away slowly.
One thing I can say for certain is that the album grows with each and every listen and that the aftertaste is something that will stay with you long after its 54 minutes are over. So find the time, maybe with a glass of wine, and enjoy the pleasures of ‘I Forget Where We Were’ because musically, for me there are few thing that are more enjoyable to listen to than this.