Collections from the Whiteout by Ben Howard album review by Adam Williams for Northern Transmissions

Island/Republic Records

9

Ben Howard

Collections From The Whiteout

At the very heart of Ben Howard’s new LP, ‘Collections from the Whiteout’, is the essence of collaboration and a lust to follow an uncertain path. For LP4, the singer-songwriter chose to embrace sonic experimentation, having been inspired by a People Collective track ‘Saint Agnes’. The endless loops from the Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner helmed project, struck the artist with a wave of inspiration.

Subsequently Howard reached out to Dessner and the first embers of music began to smoulder. A horde of collaborators soon joined Dessner and Howard on this new collective endeavour, with the likes of Kate Stables (This Is The Kit), James Krivchenia (Big Thief) and Kyle Keegan (Hiss Golden Messenger) to name a few, making up the ranks, and as they say, the rest is history or more accurately the rest is ‘Collections from the Whiteout’.

“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” pondered the record’s protagonist before concluding “I wanted to write a concept record, but I got distracted”. Thematically this statement rings true throughout ‘Collections from the Whiteout’; lyrically Howard’s wordplay is sporadic and random, like disparate proclamations that are woven together. This ambiguity allows the listener to make up their own minds about what Howard is conveying, meaning the record can be interpreted in a multi-faceted way. Sonically, Howard’s fourth LP shimmers with an innovative glow; electronics crackle and pop or glide with a velvety texture or sometimes, in form that’s hard to comprehend. Interspersed throughout, the roots of Ben’s core sound can be heard, via his choir boy vocals or a flourish of bare-boned folk-esque guitar. Notably and most importantly, the principle of a pop song is always present, it might not always be staring you in the face but its there, waiting to be unearthed.

‘Follies Fixture’ guides you into ‘Collections from the Whiteout’s otherworldly realm, via a concoction of burbling, retro synths and a swathe of choral voices. “Should have known better/you were talking to the spirit kingdom” perfectly encapsulates the mood of Howard’s new direction with a song that’s spectral yet serene. Forays into electronic-tinkering grab the headlines, with fluid soundwaves and beats coalescing throughout. ‘Crowhurst’s Meme’ crackles and shudders while a tonal keyboard motif tip-toes through the slightly dulled but still harsh sound clash. ‘Sage That She Was Burning’ adopts a weird crunching abrasion – the only comparison is the sonic equivalent of scrunching up tin foil and then chewing on it (tenuous?!) – that eventually swells to a structure that borders drum ‘n’ bass. The track’s awkward energy has you pitched somewhere between the chaotic and the calm as the man at the helm coos “half a life/is having dreams”. The combination of the organic and the synthetic is another key factor to ‘Collections from the Whiteout’; ‘Make Arrangements’ is a folk-song at its core but with a strange electronic tick-tocking on the horizon. A rough guitar line and a volley of crisp beats populate ‘Far Out’, which sashays with an off-kilter wiggle. “Once the violence has begun/we’re together all as one” chimes Howard, in either a call for solidarity or a caution against mob rule. When all the bells and whistles are stripped away, you get the likes of ‘Rookery’ and record closer ‘Buzzard’. Both of which twin the boyish vocals of Howard and the rawness of fingertips being dragged across acoustic guitar strings, adding a tangible human texture to the electronic soundscapes.

“I feel quite happy to explore weird ideas” muses Ben Howard and thankfully he pursued a path less trodden to produce an astounding album and arguably the best of his career to date.