Ben Howard's fourth album Collections From the Whiteout has all the hallmarks of a 'grower'. It's an exploration of all his signature sounds up to this point with a real (sort of) stripped back vibe. What are the hallmarks of a grower? Let me tell you. 1) There are tracks that I don't particularly like yet I can't stop listening to them. 2) Each listen reveals a new layer. In this case the layers a subtle, but there.
This album is produced by The National's Aaron Dessner who has produced albums for Sharon Van Etten and Frightened Rabbit. So this is an exciting prospect.
Opener Follies Fixture feels like a precursor for the entire album with an effects and synth-laden intro with Howard's distinct vocals. The track drifts into a lucid dream state before the swirling sounds fade to just an acoustic guitar strummed and vocals. There's a journey in this song that continues through the album.
Single What a Day harks back to the sound and success of some of his earlier, upbeat folkier efforts from Every Kingdom. The lyrics seem to represent an eternal battle to find peace or help somebody find peace (not unfamiliar territory for Ben Howard) and this sound is revisited in Rookery with Simon & Garfunkel feels (fine by me), Sorry Kid, Metaphysical Cantations and album closer Buzzard, a twangy effort that takes you straight back to another era in music for just 55 seconds of joy...and Disney's Robin Hood!
Crowhurst's Meme, about a sailor who disappeared of the face of the earth, is a standout effort on the album. Distorted guitars, keys and Ben Howard's double layered vocals all meet in perfect harmony. Finders Keepers is a repetitive, trance-like track with the words "What's that in the river that suitcase that thing?" on loop over distorted harmonics being picked and is actually about the dismembered body of an individual found in a suitcase in The Thames that one of Howard's Dad's friends found. Completing a trio of odd stories on the album is The Strange Last Flight Of Richard Russell. Off beat drums tickled, echoing guitar and melancholy keys back Howard's take on a happy go lucky airport worker who towed airplanes for a living that one day inexplicably stole a commercial airplane, flew about for an hour before crashing to his death.
Other stand out tracks include Far Out - which actually has an even better alternate version on YouTube, You Have Your Way which chugs along in a catchy fashion with an incredibly strange percussion and wind instrument that drifts in and out through the song that doesn't sound like it should fit in but does. Unfurling is a downtuned effort with a big bass drum, a lower tone of voice and a sidestep in style that drifts in and out to a more recognisable style in parts.
As I write this and listen to the album Sage That She Was Burning has elevated itself to the best song on the album. The lyrics speak of somebody that needs healing (again, maybe it's me that needs healing if I keep interpreting things this way!) but perhaps is also turning a blind eye or burying their head in the sand and how life can become blurred with what we prefer to remember. The electronic beat that opens the song dissipates toward the minute half mark where the song mellows and then picks back up works brilliantly. "Half a life is half in dream" as a lyric is a melancholy reminder of some of his previous works.
So when I said the album was stripped back, it really isn't. The more you listen, the more layers you reveal yet at face value it seems stripped back. The album is an anachronism. It confuses me and it challenges me and I believe that in six month's time I'll probably be revisiting this review and asking myself why I'm not saying this is a genius piece of work, his best yet. When I heard The Burgh Island EP and I forget Where We Were I immediately loved them and have never stopped listening. Along with Every Kingdom you could pluck out any track and it would be fine to listen to alone. Noonday Dream grew on me but was very much a slow burner. This album is different to anything he's ever done, and like Noonday Dream needs to be listened to from start to finish. You couldn't just listen to tracks like Finders Keepers amidst shuffling your tracks, but put it where it is in this album and it's in its rightful place. That sentiment may be my disgrace (to paraphrase Howard's lyrics in Rookery).
It's a good album. In time it will be a great album.