ALBUM: I Forget Where We Were
ARTIST: Ben Howard
Album release date: October 20, 2014
The sound of “sort of” losing your mind
At the ripe old age of 28, Ben Howard has an impressive career behind him. His debut album, “Every Kingdom,” was released in 2011 and went platinum, paving the way for numerous impressive awards and sold-out concerts across the globe. For a quiet surfer from Devon who had made his money by gigging tirelessly for his small but devoted fan-base, this sudden launch into stardom has likely brought with it the insane pressures and expectations of celebrity; as well as a whole new host of crazed fans who lose their minds whenever an attractive man with a guitar gets up on stage (read: teeny-boppers who don’t know what’s going on).
“I Forget Where We Were” seems to have been the title of the existential frame of mind Howard was in when he penned this particular set of songs. According to Howard himself, the album was conceptualized and recorded during a time when he was struggling with anxiety (likely related to the sudden thrust into the fickle embrace of the media) and “sort of lost his mind”: it offers a glimpse into one man’s experience of madness, and stands as a challenge to those who have professed themselves staunch devotees of the Devon-born musician.
Disjointed and Noisy
The album, as a whole, sounds more instinctual than stylized: it is inchoate and wandering (but, if indicative of a troubled mind, it is also honest). Howard’s vocal phraseology is as curious and lovely as ever: but for all that, his mumbles remain infuriatingly irresolute. The lyrics feel manic, disjointed, confused, and – dare I say it?- sloppy in comparison to what he penned for his previous EPs and album. Perhaps, “deep down,” each of these songs is meant to be an artistic rendering of an old story, poem, or song (with names like “The End of the Affair,” one can’t help but wonder): but just what stories, poems, or songs they’re drawn from remains obscure. There isn’t enough imagery, narrative, or direction to draw parallels with other literature: these songs lean too heavily on melancholic soliloquy to cast a resourceful net.
Sonically, the album has a diffused, spacious bend to it. Dissonant tones, strange melody-lines, and undecipherable vocals jostle against each other competitively. A claustrophobic, melancholy haze broods over the project, and a heavily delayed acoustic guitar sound appears repeatedly throughout. It is an effort to listen to, and – maybe in selfishness – I grew increasingly frustrated with being unable to “get” anything from the majority of the songs. I couldn’t help but wonder if, in wielding the ostensible invincibility of fame, Howard felt he could cut corners where it matters – content and vision – and fill in the blanks with experimental noises that have ended up sounding about as appealing as a dial-tone. I hate to say it, but as I listened to the album and then watched live performances, I felt as though I was listening to a friend’s brother’s underdeveloped band, it being incumbent upon me to muster up a dishonest “woot” at the end of each song out of sensitivity toward maintaining social homeostasis (and out of an inability to voice that age-old question that is most taboo to ask: “Am I the only one who thinks this isn’t actually that good?”).
A Depressing Mood-Piece
More than anything, my response to this album was one of deflated chagrin. Ben Howard burst onto the scene in 2011 and stood as a strong song-writer and a visionary: his was a unique voice that had something revelatory to say, a message with direction and telos. Sure, Howard has always had a nostalgic and mysterious bend, and his lyrics have never been crystalline: but the man who stood so close against the pane of Every Kingdom is difficult to access behind the noise and experimentation of this latest release. A couple of songs – The End of the Affair and Conrad come to mind – do showcase his musicality and talent for melody: but for the most part, the album will satisfy primarily as a depressing mood-piece, if that’s something you’re into.
The human heart needs some typography – a dash of light, a strand of sensible notes, some sense of anchorage – to balance out the confusion, dissonance, and darkness that surrounds it. I’m all for writing one’s experiences out and externalizing through song and art – my kudos to Howard for exorcising whatever demons he was wrestling with during the conception of this album – but to fawn over music that has directionlessness as its direction seems pretentious to me, as does claiming that the arduousness of listening to it (I can only imagine how not fun this music would be to perform live) is indicative of its brilliance.
I still think Ben Howard has something special, something he can tap back into if he chooses: but until he knows where he’s leading me, it’s a bit tough to follow him.