I feel like Ben Howard is someone who people misunderstand as a ‘artist’. Ask a music fan to think of what a Ben Howard song sounds like and I reckon most would describe the acoustic folky singer songwriter style of something like ‘Only Love’ or ‘Keep Your Head Up’. Listen to anything since that breakout debut album Every Kingdom and you get a sound way more diverse and inaccessible at times. He’s the sort of artist who people quote lyrics on Facebook from those early hits and then complain during a festival set full of ‘the new shit’, one listen to new album Collections From The Whiteout and you can see why this is a very different beast to that first album.
I’m here for that though, the development of sound on my favourite Ben Howard record I Forgot Where We Were and follow up Noonday Dream have showed experimentation and some daring moments that often pay off, and sometimes don’t quite, that’s really exciting for a fan. Going into this album though, I was confused whether this was being tipped as a ‘return’ to a more traditional singer songwriter vibe. Lead single ‘What A Day’ is his most straightforward single in years, with a sort of catchy hook amid interesting but traditional instrumentation. There was also the announcement that Howard had worked on this record with The National’s Aaron Dessner, the album funnily enough completed way before he went on to produce the pair of Taylor Swift albums in 2020. This could be his most traditional or experimental album yet.
The result is closer to the second than you’d expect, Collections From The Whiteout is full of unexpected sounds and instrumentation, with vocal production as deeply layered as I’ve ever heard from Howard. Opener Follies Fixture is full of dense sound and unexpected instruments that are heard across plenty of the tracks here. The impact of Aaron Dessner is obvious on tracks like this, ‘Finders Keepers’, ‘Unfurling’ and the ridiculously titled ‘The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell’. For anyone that may not have gelled with a Ben Howard record before, this might just be enough to convince you otherwise.
That said, through all of my listens of Collections From The Whiteout, despite enjoying much of what I heard hardly any of it stuck with me. Perhaps it’s the lyrics that seem to hint towards something more profound than it actually is, never as obtuse as something Bon Iver would release, but still hard to follow as a listener. Or maybe it’s the way songs seem to merge together into one homogenous Ben Howard track, there’s hardly any true highlights here, even though there’s nothing that’s genuinely bad either.
I love the use of brass instruments on ‘Crowhurts’s Meme’, while ‘Rookery’ was made to be performed live. ‘You Have Your Way’ is one of the hookiest things here, while closing track ‘Buzzard’ is so out of place as a minute long completely acoustic song it makes me feel like I’ve cmpletely missed the point of this record.
Musically Collections From The Whiteout is some of Ben Howard’s most dynamic music yet, I love the production and how daring some of the music here is. It feels like a great development from his previous two albums, but the songs themselves just don’t leave me with the same deep impression as the ones on Noonday Dream and I Forgot Where We Were did. I could see myself feeling differently after a few more months of this album, but as it stands now it’s an enjoyable, if slightly one note listen.
Words by Sam Atkins