May 28, 2018 Ben Howard – Noonday Dream (Album Review)
Four years after his last number one release, Ben Howard is back. The chorus of his song “The Fear” states that we all become what we deserve. Prophetic, the songwriter is set to release Noonday Dream on June 1, 2018, via Republic Records ahead of a world tour.
His third full-length album after the acoustically-driven 2011 debut release, Every Kingdom, and the more electric 2014 follow-up, I Forget Where We Were, this talented artist has combined two distinct musical vibes into a new psychedelic trip. In fact, both full-length releases were recipients of vast critical acclaim, with listeners helping to push millions in record sales. Additionally, Howard picked up two Brit Awards for British Breakthrough Artist and Solo Male Artist in 2012, and a prestigious Ivor Novello Award nomination – the highest praise for songwriting in the United Kingdom. A wordsmith, Howard creates tangible textures of reality through his craft and with stunning imagery connected to each note, the meanings are bold and powerful.
Noonday Dream was recorded over a two-year period at various studios, including Sawmill Studios in Cornwall, UK, in addition to locations in Southwest France; that ambiance translates to the aesthetic of his art. Written and produced by Howard, with production contributions from long-time bandmate and collaborator Mikey Smith, these ten individual musical experiences connect thematically. Truly a craftsman compositionally, Howard creates magic from the opening notes of “Nica Libres At Dusk” with its haunting musicality and rolling tempo. The lead single, each word of the lyrics chosen paint a vivid picture, a soundscape created with echoes.
Some fans of The Walking Dead already know the name Ben Howard since his music was featured in the season four episode Oats In the Water under the title “Hershel’s Theme.” That in mind, while a darkness oozed from the Howard’s 2012 EP, The Burgh Island, one may ask if his contribution to zombie pop culture has lessened the evolution of his musical genius?
For those who have doubts, a reflection of his elegant darkness bleeds through on “Towing The Line.” Starting with simple piano and unpretentious instrumentation with hollow reverb vocals, it also includes iconic metaphors of crows as a reference to Norse mythology. In the mythos, the ravens Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“memory”) fly over the world reporting back to god Odin what they see. Sonically lush, this is a contradiction to the song’s lyrical desolation. In nautical terms, this reinforces an image of patching over rotten planks until proper repairs are made, but are repairs ever completed or are we really “like a bird in a world of no trees” to put it mildly? To tap into that emotion, creating a darkness that feels this real is just insane.
“Boat To An Island On The Wall” is that moment when, at just over 7 minutes long, some may realize that Howard is a lot like Pink Floyd. How you may ask? Because he is a musician that demands investment in his artistic expression. Melodic, complex, and increasingly intriguing composition captured within the context of a record, only the third cut of ten, this is poetry set to music. Pushing the boundaries of convention, this is a stunner transcending its limits as a song, becoming something more within the expanse of the listener’s imagination. Crazy cool, this is an acid trip with no hallucinogens necessary. Following, “What the Moon Does” feels like the essence of a poem by Lord Byron, rolling over the foggy moors of England; peppered with complex rhythms fans of Howard love, this is a masterclass in composition. Brilliant!
Halfway through the record, there is a shift with “Someone In The Doorway” and its electric guitar. With easy rolling movement, it is a contradiction sonically to the first five cuts. An outstanding bit of sequencing, the song is fleshed out with background vocals, or are they just echoes of Howard’s lead vocal truths being sung? This is a Noonday Dream after all, and the clipped nature of this song is perfect. Counterbalanced with long, drawn out lyrical delivery combined with rolling percussion creates a Through The Looking Glass vibe, with the Cheshire Cat’s head floating somewhere at the end in Howard’s words, goodbye, that’s all. Is this that accidental catnap becoming a nightmare or was it a nightmare all along?
Taking that one step further with “All Down the Mines (Interlude),” listeners drift past the halfway point of the record in under a minute. Conceptually, this album is a dream and following the descent is “The Defeat,” which further proves that the man and his message are pointed with sharp, acidic imagery, possibly lost on the uninformed listener. Blasts on the girls from St. Denis – a reference to a third-century Christian martyr and saint whose French boarding school for girls was founded under Napoleon – are sung with pinched vocal delivery; shredding theology and dogmatic thinking and belief. Is the apathetic nature of humanity to think and act freely in need of a revolution?
Lulling an engaged listening audience gracefully back to the sea, “A Boat To An Island, Part II/Agatha’s Song” is the connective tissue linking the front of the record to the end; heading out with a cut that feels like a lighthouse watching, waiting. A nuanced tempo speaks like the ocean gently lapping against the shore. The minimalist lyrics are haunting, and the track is alive with its sheer emptiness; a kaleidoscope of sound, it reverberates out to the unknown shores. This is a beginning of the end, that moment when the hypnotic, musical trance is broken. Eternal like the tides, this track has an infinite purpose.
With an almost Middle Eastern percussive entrance to the end of Noonday Dream, self-deprecating attacks on life and love encompass “There’s Your Man,” where you might wonder who the real-life examples were that fueled the fire for this horror story. One thing is clear: Howard the songwriter is a poet whose tales are cinematic. With an ethereal sound, an essence of lightness prevails in his trademark, percussive acoustic guitar sounds in this tale of modern day romance, or real life love may be more accurate.
“Murmurations” as the final nightcap of this daydream is a shard of cutting brilliance. Mixed with a dreamlike quality, each layer of instrumentation sings with its own voice over the course of the full six-plus minutes. Constant is the tick-tock of the bongo drums or is that percussive guitar? Blurred with a cacophony of sounds and instrumentation, crystal clear vocals strike out like a butterfly on a breeze busting out of its cocoon.
An exceptional multi-instrumentalist and a poetic wordsmith, on Noonday Dream, Howard authors ten individual musical experiences that connect thematically. A compositional craftsman, Ben Howard is an emotional storyteller who peppers together crazy cool with complex, ultimately creating music that is melodic and fully intriguing, pushing the boundaries of convention. Brilliance shines from the mind of the troubadour on Noonday Dream and as this record is destined for Folk Rock history, CrypticRock give it 5 out of 5 stars.