Too often does it happen where a band or artist we follow disappoints in spectacular fashion following the release of a second album. Admittedly much of that disappointment comes from the perception we draw for ourselves of what that band should be, but it’s still very real and something that is universal among listeners. Fortunately for us though there is the odd case where the artist does actually come through and produces something seminal. For Ben Howard, this could prove to be such a record.
Following on from the success brought on by Every Kingdom, a debut release that virtually catapulted Howard into the light, comes I Forget Where We Were – arguably darker, palpably different this release is a sign of maturity. Whilst the album isn’t as littered with contemporary and jaunty folk as the debut might have been, it once again demonstrates the striking talent that Ben Howard has for the guitar; the unerring use of open tunings is reflective of how everything good about playing that way is the fact that it is a clean slate, where everything generated or written is born out of pure imagination and improvisation. It is a form of guitar in its natural state – to describe it as raw would be indulgent, but the lack of convention lends itself to the way the musician can genuinely express themselves. Those six strings are opened to as yet unfound ideas; it serves as an invitation into the unknown, the unexplored and the unfamiliar, but can result in the most magnificent of accidents.
When considerable investments of time and application are then introduced you see the results in the likes of Ben Howard, a musician generating a legacy and a deserved reputation as one of the more exciting, contemporary British artists of our moment. Anyone who has ever witnessed this Devonshire native perform live can attest to the sheer intensity that is expressed, along with the members of his close knit group of backing musicians.
Opening the record is the reflective Small Things, with its jagged guitar rolling along to the pained accompaniment of Howard’s vocals it is a sombre opening to the record, but one which does move into the more familiar realms of dramatic climax (see Oats In the Water), a format which Ben Howard has carved out as something of a specialty for his music. Then comes a song more in the ilk of the first album, Rivers In Your Mouth, which again shows the maturity that has developed in the past 3 years.
Having been released prior to the album, the title track has lost none of its appeal – it is a poignant, contemplative and emotive song and one that simply blew me away upon first listening; this is without fail the centrepiece of the album, the song that deserves pride of place and the song that marks this return as one triumphant. The trademark shouted vocals make a return along with the familiar instrumental climax, hallmarks of Ben Howard’s craft by now.
The rest of the album plays out these fantastically composed songs which all cast a dark reflection on the man who has produced arguably some of the most feel-good songs going – whether or not some strong circumstance has taken place in Ben Howard’s life which has influenced his music in such a way, I don’t know, but if Every Kingdom were the expression of youth then I Forget Where We Were should be considered the artful statement of early adulthood and all the challenges that come with.