Ben Howard

I Forget Where We Were

Written by: TL on 16/11/2014 18:18:20

In the genres most commonly labelled folk and singer/songwriter, it's customary for artists to use their given names instead of inventing pseudonyms, almost as if to say "I'm not a sound, not a style and not a constructed identity. I'm just a person that writes songs, hope you like them". It's equally common for such artists to center their songs around lyrics and acoustic guitar, and at first glance, these things also seemed to go for England's Ben Howard on his excellently received debut album "Every Kingdom" from 2011. Upon closer inspection however, Howard had more to offer, for while songs like "Old Pine", "The Wolves" and "Keep Your Head Up" did indeed thrive mainly on his considerable skill as a singer and finger-picking acoustic guitarist, tracks like "Black Flies", "Oats In The Water" and "Esmeralda" (the latter two from the following "The Burgh Island EP") showed that Howard could also seize the electric guitar, draw upon his band and set up a much more elaborate and immersive musical experience than your average sentimental folk song.

Ben Howard does have a sound then, and a quite uncanny one at that, and while casual listeners might have loved to hear more songs in line with his brighter and more upbeat material, his second album "I Forget Where We Were" rather picks up where "The Burgh Island EP" left off: In an echoing gloom where his eletric guitar provides haunting, exotic melodies that act as skeletons for minimalistic, carefully orchestrated additional instrumentation and of course for Howard's delicate baritone voice.

For the first three songs then, "Small Things"; "Rivers In Your Mouth" and the title track, you get brilliance upon brilliance upon more brilliance. The sorrowful signature riff that opens the album is itself a curious marvel, and the enchanting harmonies between Howard and regular collaborator India Bourne carry you patiently through the strange soundscape until the whole thing simply bubbles over with measured musical playfulness in the song's final third. In "Rivers In Your Mouth", Howard's singing takes a clear lead, while his guitar teases spine-chillingly in the background, and once again, the composition changes form in elegant yet sweeping manner between the third and fourth minute and the level of detail and soulfulness of each separate tone is frankly staggering - See for instance, if you notice the brief, incredibly bassy vocal harmony that appears in only a single line, never to be heard again. At this point, it's hard to believe that the title track has an even higher peak to bring you to, yet its echoing guitar melody is nothing short of majestic, and when Howard sings the high melody note for note, well, it's just a 10/10 song, and the third in a row at that.

If the first three tracks are so jaw-dropping that it almost feels like you're being seduced beyond control by some composer of siren songs, there are songs however, that are more traditional, which cast Howard as a person of actual earthen heritage. "In Dreams" restrains the vocal-work to a lower range and concentrates on a simple intensity in interplaying acoustic guitar and cello, and "She Treats Me Well" channels a feeling of contentment that's deceptively relaxing to listen to. "Evergreen" sets the instruments back in a strict supporting role, seemingly wanting the softly sung lyrics to have the most weight, and one dares say the light, bright, blooming "Conrad" almost feels a bit out of place on the record.

These seemingly less ambitious pieces still glide by with elegance and tastefulness though, that make them feel almost like statements of quiet confidence on behalf of this 27 year old surfer from Devon - yet you could say that they have less individual impact than what was the average on the already ridiculously consistent "Every Kingdom". Fortunately, Howard has more demonstrations of his talent to offer. "Time Is Dancing" sees him singing delicious harmonies with himself in calm contrast against the song's fast pulse, while "End Of The Affair" again has him matching his guitar-hook - which is now acoustic - with his voice, until the song takes off running with a spidery guitar-pattern that sounds like it's impossible to play and which eventually drops away to hear Howard raise his voice to a cry against the echoing soundscape.

The record ends with an almost gospel-like chant in "All Is Now Harmed", and does so with the feeling of a spell being lifted from the listener. At this point, the only thing that's harder than pressing "repeat" is to not come up with all sorts of hyperbole to attach to Howard's musicianship. Yet words simply and truly feel insufficient when it comes to conveying just how carefully measured and enchanting "I Forget Where We Were" is in its best moments, of which there are enough to take up more than half of its runtime. Howard breaks the spell here and there, as if challenging the listener to stay with him, and in doing so incidentally let's you imagine an even higher level of perfection, had the record kept its mesmerizing grasp on you constant. Yet such considerations are reduced to trifles, when Howard's talent flows free and gives you a listening experience that takes you away from thinking about dynamics and lyrics and choruses and just has your mind leaping to keep up with each subsequent butterfly-like detail.

An absolute must-listen for anyone and everyone who appreciates music as more than just catchy melodies to hum along to.

Download: I Forget Where We Were, Rivers In Your Mouth, End Of The Affair, Small Things
For The Fans Of: Bon Iver, Glen Hansard, Chorus Grant, Polyenso

Release date 20.10.2014
Island / tôt Ou tard / Republic

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