Album of the Week: Ben Howard’s Collections From the Whiteout is a surprising return to form

Ben Howard is seemingly a reluctant, successful musician. His ongoing success and acclaim from fans and critics does not always sitting so well with himself. Instead, he comes across as an artist who is consistently and constantly looking to grow and evolve, all while perhaps being held back by his historical success. Having been a notable figure on festival lineup for the past decade, Howard has spent a third of his life relentlessly touring and evolving. His is the sound of an act who isn’t afraid to change their sound, whether to the excitement or displeasure of their devoted fandom. Here, however, on his fourth album, Collections From the Whiteout, Howard has managed to piece together fourteen songs that are as equally not dissimilar to his previous albums as they are exciting and embracing of change.

Collections From the Whiteout, with its obvious nod to the bleak year everyone has experienced, is a release that will grow on you with each listen. While it’s not as obvious and accessible as his most well known album (2011’s folk-pop masterpiece Every Kingdom), it is nowhere near as bleak and drawn out as 2018’s Noonday Dream. In short, Collections From the Whiteout is an amalgamation of the sounds and themes of his previous three albums; all whilst also welcoming the influences provided by super producer Aaron Dessner.

These influences, evidently drawn from Dessner and Justin Vernon‘s collaborative project People Collective, are rich and thorough throughout Collection‘s run, whilst not relying on them too heavily. Having already released a few taste tests of the album this year, Howard has welcomed the world into his life over the past eighteen months, as he journeyed through Mediterranean Europe and North America.

Wanting to delve into the sphere of tape loops, FX and a shitload of pedal boards, Howard has welcomed the ideas of Dessner and a myriad of other collaborators. It is perhaps not surprising then that on Collections, Howard has moved away from using his own lived experiences to shape all his stories and tracks. Instead he has drawn inspiration from external sources and stories.

This is particularly evident on “Crowhurst’s Meme”, a melancholic and delicate take on the true story of the untimely death of solo sailor Donald Crowhurst. This can also be seen on the distorted and disturbed “Finders Keepers”, a slightly disheveled track about the discovery of a family friend’s body found in a suitcase along the Thames. It’s evident that there isn’t a lot of rosey content on Collections. Though honestly this doesn’t stray all that far from Howard’s releases since 2014’s I Forget Where We Were. With that in mind, the aforementioned looping and effects, when matched with Howard’s recognisable guitar styling, does make Collections a surprisingly enjoyable listen.

“Far Out” is a classic folk track in-waiting, with its uneven timing and delicate keys over the closing minute. While “Rookery” is probably closer to 2011 Howard, as the entirely acoustic track invokes an almost Darren Hanlon style of lyricism. It’s a truly pretty song. Collections isn’t as well weighted as it could be; and it’s only from the seventh track “You Have Your Way” that the album starts to really come into its own. This lack of congruency does make sense though. After all Howard began album’s development with the idea of creating a concept album, before slowly realising it wasn’t quite the idea he wanted to proceed further with.

Possibly peaking with the back-to-back “Sage That She Was Bearing” and “Sorry Kid”, it slowly becomes apparent that while Howard may be at times a reluctant celebrity or notable musician, he is in full control of his craft and knows exactly what he’s doing. There isn’t a lot of second guessing on the album, despite the noticeable change in moods across its run.

The moody and atmospheric “The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell”, another story drawn from the outside world (look into the story of Russell; it’s baffling to say the least), fits snuggly into the vibe of The National or Bon Iver, while second-to-last track “Metaphysical” is a gem hidden in the closing moments of the album. Ending on the less than a minute folk ditty “Buzzard”, Collections from the Whiteout is a surprising return to form from Howard.

A weird amalgam  of styles, stories, throwbacks and anecdotes, Collections From the Whiteout shouldn’t work, but it does. Ben Howard is still as enigmatic as he’s always been, even four albums deep. I’m still not sure how the album will translate to a live setting, but at this point, it probably doesn’t matter. Just enjoy it for what it is.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Ben Howard’s Collections From the Whiteout is out Friday March 26th. Pre-order the album HERE.

Howard will be performing an exclusive live streamed concert from Cornwall’s Goonhilly Earth Station on April 8th. Tickets are available HERE.

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