When Ben Howard released the first single from his third album, my initial response was ‘oh, that’s nice’, then I quickly forgot about it and went back to my regular programming. I am a big Ben Howard fan, but I just wasn’t overly excited to hear his new stuff.
Perhaps it was the confusing song title, ‘A Boat to an Island on the Wall’ (How does the boat get on a wall? Why is there an island on the wall? What does it mean?!), that put me off; or perhaps it was the seemingly over-long, self-indulgent run time of 7 minutes. Whatever it was, I had to force myself to sit down and listen to the song. The verdict… it was one of the best songs Ben Howard has released in a long time.
Ben Howard has been on somewhat of a musical journey. His first album, Every Kingdom, was full of festival ready summer hits like ‘Only Love’, ‘Old Pine’, and ‘Keep Your Head Up’. When he released his second album I Forget Where We Were, it felt as though he wanted to shake off the indie-folk label and be seen as a ‘real musician’. This album was a stark contrast to the first, with electric guitars, moodier lyrics, and even a artsy black and white album cover. If Every Kingdom was a Marvel film, I Forget Where We Were was DC at it’s moodiest.
Personally, I wasn’t blown away by this new musical direction. Although it was undeniably well-written and distinctly Ben Howard, I missed the upbeat, plinky guitar and catchy choruses. Although it was aiming for something deeper, it never quite hit home for me. This could be because, in my opinion, Every Kingdom is one of the best British Albums of all time.
With Noonday Dream, Ben Howard has merged the optimism of his first album with the carefully crafted soundscapes of the second. This winning combo is what makes this album work so well. You could say, he is having a bit of a ‘Benaissance’… I’ll see myself out.
The album opens with ‘Nico Libres at Dusk’, which sets the tone for the rest of the record. The hypnotic, almost chanting, verses mixed with the swelling instrumentation easily lull you into dreams about travelling. This is similar earlier songs like Old Pine, but with a sense of maturity and restraint. Like Every Kingdom, Ben uses nature in all its awesome vastness to elaborate on very human feelings and insecurities. Sometimes lyrics are so beautiful in their own right, you can enjoy them without the music – that’s the sign of a musician in their prime.
As well as sounding more mature, the content of the album is more reflective than previous outings. For example, in ‘What the Moon Does’, he sings ‘Am I making history?/Am I working out?/ Only what the moon does to the devout’. This sense of vulnerability, instead of the angst in I Forget Where We Were, makes it easy to connect to the album and makes you reflect on yourself as well.
The title, Noonday Dream, perfectly sums up the atmosphere this record evokes. It walks the fine line between being demanding attention and letting you drift off into your own world. It’s not particularly dancey but it is never boring. Even though most of the songs are over five minutes (which is little bug-bear of mine), this never feel unnecessarily long and they constantly grow as the songs go on. ‘A Boat to an Island on the Wall’ is a prime example of this, where repeated phrases are accompanied by drums, choirs, electric guitars in the last few minutes to make for a dramatic ending. The best songs are those that end somewhere different to where they started, and Ben Howard does this in style.
The trouble with this kind of album is that, though it aims for the lofty heights of art, the songs themselves blur into one another. ‘Someone in the Doorway’ and ‘There’s Your Man’ are probably the most likely songs to get your pulse going, and that’s a bit of a stretch. Regardless, every song is beautifully crafted so they never feel like they’re just filler.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of this album is Ben’s vocals. Although he still has his unique sound, it sounds like he’s a little tired and it’s a bit more difficult than it used to me. It seems like he’s focused on evocative lyrics and gorgeous musical arrangement. Saying that, it’s not off putting in the slightest; but when you put Ben Howard on shuffle and hear him busting his guts in ‘Depth Over Distance’ or ‘The Fear’, it seems like he’s aged. In fairness, it has been 7 years since his debuted, and a lot has changed since then.
Noonday Dream enters the realm where music becomes art, similar to the work of Bon Iver and The Tallest Man on Earth. It showcases an older, more thoughtful, Ben Howard. Although the content may not be as memorable as previous outings, the feelings this album evokes stays with you and makes you want to go back for more.
What does you think? Let us know in the comments.