If anyone tells you that ‘things were better in the old days’, just recite to them the tale of John Howard. Not the penal reform campaigner, nor the former Australian Prime Minister, but the singer/songwriter. Never heard of him? There’s a reason for that.
A quick history lesson: in 1975, John Howard released an album called Kid In A Big World: a record full of lushly orchestrated songs featuring some particularly witty wordplay, all delivered in Howard’s rich, distinctive voice. It briefly garnered some critical acclaim, but refused to make any dents upon the charts, mainly due to Howard’s record company’s reluctance to promote their artist. For the institutionalised homophobia of the ’70s was so bad that Howard, an openly gay man, couldn’t receive any sort of radio play. Which, in an era where David Bowie and Marc Bolan were smashing through all sorts of glass ceilings, is quite staggering.
Howard retired from making music in the late ’70s and began a career in A&R and that was that – until Kid In A Big World was unexpectedly rediscovered and reissued in 2003, which led to a second wave of interest in Howard’s career, and ultimately led to him recording again. While he’s still not exactly a household name, he’s amassed a loyal enough following to self-release a string of albums, of which John Howard & The Night Mail is his 14th.
The most striking thing about The Night Mail is how it manages to sound both completely in its own world yet utterly modern. This isn’t an album in thrall to any studio trickery, it’s simply a collection of some beautifully crafted songs. At times, such as on the epic In The Light Of Fires Burning, it feels like a great lost album from the ’70s, at other times (especially the instantly infectious Deborah Fletcher) it sounds like something The Divine Comedy would release.
He may be in his early sixties now, but Howard’s fire shows no sign of going out just yet – the vitriolic pen portraits on London’s After Work Drinking Culture are both funny and poignant, reminiscent of Damon Albarn‘s musings on the tragedy of commuter life. Just the way that Howard utters lines like “once again, you are smelling the breath of that man from HR, and you wonder how he ever made it this far” is enough to make you smile.
He’s also not afraid to turn that lacerating eye on himself, as Control Freak demonstrates, but sometimes Howard’s at his best when he keeps it simple, such as the brief but brilliant This Song or the rolling piano chords of Thunder In Vienna prove. Even a heartfelt cover of Roddy Frame‘s Small World doesn’t sound particularly out of place and sits nicely next to Howard’s own songs. Howard’s band, including Austrian musician Robert Rotifer on guitar, really bring the best out of him, never overshadowing him, and just letting his still strong, theatrical voice dominate proceedings.
The closing Tip Of Your Shoe brings things to a close with a typically flamboyant flourish, a dig at internet commentators or, as Howard puts it, “the message you had scrawled, on that 21st century toilet wall…one of those ‘let’s be honest’ rants”. Like much of the album that precedes it, it’s funny, thoughtful and catchy as hell. He’s no kid anymore, and the world seems even bigger than before, but John Howard is certainly making up for lost time.