Ben Howard’s fourth album, Collections From The Whiteout, marks, not quite a new direction, but a new adventure for the folk singer. Many of the songs were co-written by its producer, Aaron Dessner, who has recently garnered more acclaim through collaborations with Taylor Swift on her albums folklore (winner of the Grammy Album of the Year Award) and evermore. I confess to enjoying 2011’s indie-folk album Every Kingdom more, but while I was previously unfamiliar with ‘folktronica’, Howard has introduced electronic elements to his folk music more successfully than I would have thought possible before hearing Collections From The Whiteout. Howard’s trademark poetic lyrics are combined by turns with pure acoustics, discordant electronic experiments and meandering arpeggios, and, surprisingly, it works.
“Howard has somehow transformed the usually significant divide between the ominous and the amusing into a fine line.”
Collections takes a great deal of inspiration from real-life events and people, frequently recounting dark tales, but also incorporates a sort of irreverent whimsy which Howard would surely be pleased to hear comes across distinctly as he has previously expressed his fear of taking himself and his music too seriously. This is particularly evident in ‘Finders Keepers’, a song inspired by a friend of his father’s anecdote about finding a body floating in a suitcase. Howard transforms this into a darkly humorous exploration of the adages ‘be careful what you wish for’ and ‘curiosity killed the cat’. With the melancholy but also irreverent lyric ‘Why am I stood here up to my knees?/Isn’t there a birthday, a place I should be?’ and the rest of Collections, Howard has somehow transformed the usually significant divide between the ominous and the amusing into a fine line. Howard’s sombre words: ‘I picture you suffocating/In last tulip polytunnel’ from the tenth track, ‘Unfurling’, are another example of this striking technique.
On paper, Dessner and Howard might seem almost too well matched, but nevertheless they have jointly produced a record that is distinctly experimental from both collaborators in much of its sound. Unfortunately, this isn’t wholly successful – I find the scratchy, grating loop in ‘Sage That She Was Burning’ too distracting and unrelated to the song. It is altogether superfluous as becomes clear when the song temporarily abandons it halfway through in favour of a melodic guitar with a dreamy quality that better reflects the lyrics. Interestingly, the two elements do marry up much more harmoniously in the final segment of the song, but this does not fully absolve the jarring opening. However, the pairing’s successes far outweigh their foibles in the album. My personal favourite is the penultimate track on Collections, ‘The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell’. For those unfamiliar with the tale of Richard Russell, he is ill-famed for shocking his friends, family, and much of the world in 2018 when he stole a commercial plane and managed to fly it surprisingly proficiently for a time before deliberately crashing the aircraft and ending his life. Howard’s song appears to be from the perspective of Russell’s widow, and combines soft percussion and electronic echoes to create a calm but almost otherworldly sound, as if it came from a different plane (if you will forgive the unfortunate pun). The words are beautifully mournful and offer a resigned, if tongue-in-cheek, philosophy in the form of my favourite lyric from the album: ‘Some threads/Don’t fit the loom’.
While the sonic experiments are not, in my opinion, always pleasing, the album as a whole is a triumph. Howard’s lyric is as powerful as ever and he demonstrates adroitness in retelling stories taken from news and infusing them with both the personal and the universal, giving listeners both an insight into the artist himself and a chance to learn more about themselves through their own interpretations of the music. His song inspired by the exposing of fake socialite Anna Sorokin, ‘Sorry Kid’, offers both a warning and almost an exoneration with the lines ‘To be a magpie in the safe/Sure must be a tempting place’. Collections From The Whiteout is an exploratory but not overly dramatic departure from his earlier work, and its closing track ‘Buzzard’ in particular will be familiar to fans of his other albums – its atypical brevity notwithstanding.
Image credit: Abigail Hoekstra via Wikimedia Commons: CC BY-SA 3.0