Following the work of Ben Howard, in many ways, is like witnessing an artist undergo the process of creative destruction. After the seminal Every Kingdom debut in 2011, earning him a Mercury Prize nomination and positioning the songwriter firmly among the eminent artists in British folk music, the progression that led up to the multi-faceted ambiance of the most recent Collections From The Whiteout amounts to a daring turn to bend and even break the stylistic confines Howard may have inscribed himself into.
Collections From The Whiteout feels like the temporary finish line of that evaluation. From the brooding angst of the sophomore I Forget Where We Where and the lush melancholy that speaks through 2018’s Noonday Dream, Howard has worked himself away from the radio-friendly folk-pop darling to the avant-garde aesthete that has managed to channel his mastery of acoustic balladry on to captivating sonic territories long crossing the paths of electronica and jazz. Ben Howard has moved on to more eccentric terrains and he has proven that it is worth following him on that journey.
Clearing the canvas
Two summers back, when Ben Howard was roaming through Portugal, he was exposed to Santa Agnes by People Collective, the collaborative project of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner from The National. Upon crossing the river Tejo, he got enthralled by the spiralling turns of the 17-minute-long track, which captured for him a remarkable moment in time. This experience gave him the push he needed to return back home and start working on a new record, which should echo the impressions that embraced him right there and then.
For the first time opening his doors for production outside his inner band circle, he contacted Dessner and the two entered a creative process of pushing the boundaries of Howard’s craft, resulting in a record that fuses the manifold virtues of his art – his introspective skills as a songwriter, his guitar mastery, and his love for complex electronic textures winding through his songs ever since Noonday Dream. Collections From The Whiteout is all of that, but freshly rearranged and presenting itself in the shape of a sound that appears as something different entirely and is yet still unmistakably Ben Howard.
Whereas the previous records were mostly preoccupied with a strong focus on the inner life of the mind, Collections From The Whiteout decisively presents a turn to the outer world of things. Filtering headlines from news stories provided sufficient inspiration for the rough textual frameworks of the songs – such as the death of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst in Crowhurst’s Meme, the Russian fraud artist Anna Sorokin in Sorry Kid, or Richard Russell, the man who stole and crashed a plane in Seattle and found entrance into The Strange Last Flight Of Richard Russell. About the process, Howard recalls:
“I had a phase where it was going to be a concept record. I didn’t feel like I had loads of stuff about myself that I wanted to write about so I was cherry picking bits of news feeds and little interesting stories. Then you tinker with it, you try and fit words in, you stretch it and then all of a sudden your normal tics start feeding into it and songs end up being partly about yourself and partly about someone else.”
Taken from everyday life, the structure of curious observations, strange and beautiful as they are in all their random nature, and indeed “collections” do allow Ben Howard the artist to personally step behind the façade of external narratives and evolve his own musical game, sonically going places yet unchartered. And in the end, the way these stories add up to a larger picture carries an even bigger sense of intimacy and introspection after all. “It’s sort of an amalgamation”, Howard himself describes that process the making of this record went through.
Follies Fixture, the first of fourteen pieces on here, might still resemble the sonic aura of Noonday Dream, with its subtle synths shapes and Howard’s mellow voice shining through the bleak instrumentation. The following What A Day even reminds a little of the songwriter’s beginning era, with the bliss of acoustic guitars and subtle rhythmic support. While this appears all light-headed and in a nice folky flow, Crowhurst’s Meme soon demonstrates its radical potential: Rhythmic drives, smudgy guitars and fine hints of piano sequences in there create a smooth flow that once echoes a moody potential (“And they’ll murder me if I come back winning / Yeah they’ll murder me”) as well as an intriguing stream of sounds.
Finders Keepers quickly subverts that first impression quickly and just feels like a wild improvised jam on electric guitars and pedal loops – full of atonal structures and itself dripping with dread and despair (“Why’s it always me / Finding things I should never have seen? / Why’s it always me / Finding things I should never have seen?”). The succeeding Far Out and Rookery then head back into more solemn, and most importantly, harmonic terrain. Especially the latter one, with acoustic guitar as sole instrument, marks a throwback in that sense, placing the tender ballad as radical antidote to what we just heard before.
“I feel comfortable at the moment in terms of finally understanding what I do. Before I was just exploring things and not understanding what I did as a songwriter and not having any composure with it.“
“Fuse things together”
Just as the songwriting is marked by a duality between the world of strange stories picked up by Howard and worked into his own narrative, the sonic universes oscillate between folk-fused balladry efforts and avant-garde electronic trips. You Have Your Way for instance is a moving ode that reverberates the songwriter’s folkish roots and yet comes in a modern shape. In a similar way, the following Sage That She Was Burning, a contemporary story of a life lost in the rage of excess (“And the memory grows half asleep / Half a life is half in dream / Half a life is half in dream”), presented in the language of traditional folk structures. That’s the real beauty of this record, however irritating and challenging it might be: It consumes a fascinating range of influences and channels them into an artwork in its own right, just as the artist himself is keen to emphasise:
“I’ve always had an inclination towards Celtic and English folk. I listen to a lot of old Irish rebel music. But rather than copying a style, I’m really keen on the amalgamation of styles and how you can fuse things together.”
Towards a bigger picture?
When one looks at the cover of Collections From The Whiteout, which shows Ben Howard comfortably seated on a chair, in front of a white canvas, one can hardly ignore the symbolic value that speaks of it. No longer hiding in the obscure shades as in the image of I Forget Where We Were, nor remaining in the far distance like on the cover of Noonday Dream, the songwriter has decided to step out of the dusk and let his artistic progress speak for itself. He may have had to clear his own mental canvas to create the songs on this record first. And for all we know, this process of creative destruction led to the most thrilling and most inventive work to date.
“I feel more confident of being able to run with ideas now. I feel quite happy to explore weird ideas. If I want to write a song about a body that’s found in the river, then that’s alright. I can write songs and not be too precious and kill the muse early on.”
Ben Howard’s muse is by no means dead on Collections From The Whiteout, that much is clear. And while he followed the very basic approach of folk culture – collecting stories from elsewhere – and shaped them into an eclectic opus that fuses past with present and is by all means a daring reinvention of his own creative frames.
Ben Howard‘s new album Collections From The Whiteout is out now via Island Records.