Oh, what a treat. Delightful as it has been to wallow in John Howard’s musical past, 30 years after the original release of Kid In A Big World we have a recording that not only reflects the current artist, but shows that the best is perhaps still to come.
The Dangerous Hours is Howard’s first collaboration with poet Robert Cochrane, who provided the lyrics. You might perhaps expect a singer-songwriter to sound different when the words aren’t his own, but the partnership here is seamless – and the mixture of the charming and the melancholy in the songs adds up to a delightful whole.
Opening track The Luxury Of Rain is typical of the feel of the whole album. Staccato piano (it’s quite a rainstorm) leads in to a wistful vocal about the sadness of thinking of a past love. Delicate backing strings build tension to a quirky sudden end – perfect at just under two minutes long.
Even shorter is the light-hearted gem What A Carry On: “A poem and postcard set to music”. Irresistible lyrics from start – “There’s a man in our compartment looks like Charles Hawtrey…” – to finish “…Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me…”. Nostalgia doesn’t come better than this.
Such A Drag and Dear Glitterheart are more in the style of earlier albums, the latter in particular taking us back to the good old days of David Bowie selling the world in a dress, Howard’s voice winding up the melodrama as only he can do and even providing his own backing oohs and ahs.
One of many highlights is Expect The Unexpected, which sounds like just another bittersweet song until you realise it’s more serious than that. “Tattered, mournful and so…/ waving from the bridge / nothing left to stay for. / Tattered, mournful and so… / falling from the bridge / nothing left to pay for”. Again, sensitive backing – never over the top, just adding to the atmosphere – adds to the sadness, ending on a long, falling note and then – silence.
Silent Madness, And Even Now and Blame The Night are all gorgeous ballads, the first two about loss but the third offering a wonderful, romantic, optimistic view that love is coming, not going. Early Closing Days adds lovely backing vocal harmonies to a deceptively simple tune. There’s a Californian feel to this most English of songs – surely no other country in the world still has early closing days, after all…
And then there’s the title track… “wide awake at three a.m. / will I ever sleep again? / toss and turn and count the friends I’ve lost and spurned…” We’ve all been there.
Death And The Bridesmaid Boy is another standout track, harpsichord replacing the piano to charming effect for a disarmingly upbeat tale of disillusion – “no success of the kind you desired / unfeted in the style you wished was yours…” – oh dear, we’ve been there, too. Howard and Cochrane seem to be writing the soundtrack to our lives. If you don’t recognise it, you’re either lucky or oblivious.
There are many wonderful lyrics in this collection, and the delight is that John Howard’s settings seem just… well, perfect. Sometimes quiet and restrained, sometimes impassioned, always with the most immaculate piano playing, of course. The days of glam may be behind him but he should find a big following with this album. Sit back and enjoy.