In a parallel universe, Ben Howard is probably rivalling Ed Sheeran for the title of Britain’s most successful acoustic troubadour. It’s easy to forget just how well received his debut album Every Kingdom was when it was released in 2011, with many tracks becoming regular fixtures on the soundtracks for TV shows and video games.
Yet Howard’s career has taken an arguably more interesting course over the last decade than stadium tours and million selling records. The follow-up to Every Kingdom, 2014’s I Forget Where We Were, was a complete about-turn for Howard, a languid, experimental jam that at times recalled John Martyn‘s heyday.
Since then, Howard has kept on the more experimental path, a journey continued with Collections From The Whiteout. His collaborator for this record is Aaron Dessner of The National, who has most recently been producing Taylor Swift‘s two albums of last year, Folklore and Evermore.
Don’t go into this expecting anything like The National or Swift’s latest records though. While Howard doesn’t shy away from his more accessible side (indeed, it’s perfectly possible to imagine the lovely, languid What A Day becoming a crossover hit), Collections From The Whiteout is a fragile, minimal beast, full of strange tales coated in a slightly eerie air.
At times, it almost feels like an anthology of spooky tales – Finders Keepers is the macabre tale of a man discovering a suitcase floating down the river, only to discover a dead body lurking inside. The repeated vocals and distorted instrumentation brings to mind Kid A-era Radiohead, while Rookery and Make Arrangements seem custom designed to cash in on the nation’s new found love of sea shanties.
Often, Howard’s stories are ripped from the headlines. Sorry Kid is inspired by the tale of Anna Sorokin, the German woman who was jailed for her part in defrauding New Yorkers by pretending to be a wealthy heiress. Crowhurt’s Meme recounts the story of Donald Crowhurst, a sailor who died while taking part in a round the world yacht race while The Last Flight of Richard Russell is about a man who committed suicide by stole and intentionally crashed a small plane.
Even the more straightforward numbers seem coated in anxiety – the burbling Radiohead-esque synths of opener Follies Fixture, for example. The only problem is Howard’s tendency to meander, which means much of the album sounds a bit directionless. Also, 14 tracks and a total running time of over an hour means that this could be a bit of a long slog for those who have yet to be enamoured of Howard’s approach.
Yet this was never designed to be a quick fix of a record – rather, this is an album to live with and wallow in. Some unusual percussion features throughout, with jazz drummer Yussef Dayes making his mark on You Have Your Way, while album highlight Sage That She Was Burning mixes distorted beats with sad, poignant piano chords. Then, just as you feel you’ve got a measure of the sound that Howard’s going for, along comes Buzzard to close the album, a 55 second slice of lovely pastoral folk.
There’s certainly a lot to take in on Ben Howard’s fourth album – not all the ideas work in fairness, and there’s a few too many moments which feel like half-sketched ideas. Yet Dessner makes a decent foil for him and for those who have joined Howard on his career journey to date will be more than happy to continue travelling with him.