Contrasts can be as jarring and brutal as life itself – and singer-songwriter Ben Howard is an excellent study in such transformations. From his summery 2011 debut Every Kingdom to the shattering, to the dismal woe of 2014’s I Forget Where We Were, to the introspective processing accomplished on 2018’s Noonday Dream, Ben has never delivered the same project twice. Of course, his ascent out of the emotional abysses has been realistically gradual and now with the singer’s latest album, Collections From The Whiteout, he mostly directs his discerning eye to the world around him after going through his unflinchingly personal journeys. Working primarily alongside the prolific producer Aaron Dessner, Collections is a varied – and for the most part, experimental – set of tracks that consolidate Ben’s storytelling propensity.
The album opens with “Follies Fixture” which is underpinned by an almost-whimsical guitar riff with faint piano and drums. Ben details “Looking out on a Belleville crowd / Never knew how much I had missed you,” giving this track a romantic vibe. However, even in this romanticism, there is still an encroachment of darkness as he sings “Walk with me to the burning spire / We can count the dead on Ender’s pyre.” This track already indicates that Ben is navigating towards unexpected directions. However, following track and lead single “What A Day” harks back to his Every Kingdom days with its layered, warm guitar soundscapes and is one of the most accessible tracks he’s released for a while. “What a way to come around / When I take you out I take you walking / Healing,” he sings over what feels like a montage of a peaceful summer day.
However, in his fashion he remains aware of the pathos that underlines such perfect day (“Always fearing… Where does the time go?”). “Metaphysical Cantations” is another warm track with bass guitar, syncopated beats and faded strings. It also seems another personal addition to the album as Ben admits “I’m working on turning me around / Lifting me out here / To be the one that causes affectations.”
One of the record’s primary strengths is when Ben becomes the narrator of somebody else’s tragic tale. For example, “Crowhurst’s Meme” finds him delivering a lyrically harrowing track over clattering drums, piano and discordant electric guitar, while his melodies provide a great juxtaposition. Inspired by the tragic story of a British sailor, Donald Crowhurst, who died while voyaging across the world, Howard spins a world of isolation and futility especially on the chorus where he sings: “When I wake up / I’m a long way out.” Towards the end, when “Crowhurst’s Meme” is stripped back to just guitar, Ben breaks out of his narrator’s stance and becomes self-referential singing “I’m aware of the allegory, yes it’s plain / I’m aware of the allegory, it’s a fix this game.”
This inclination towards darker subject matter is maintained on the idiosyncratic “Finders Keepers”, which details an unfortunate person who discovers a dead body in a suitcase; “What’s in that river? / That suitcase? / That floating thing?” There’s a sense of bleak humour over the gritty guitar and soft piano notes as he laments: “Why is it always me? / Finding things I should never have seen.” This is definitely one of the weirder tracks Ben has recorded, yet it still has an odd appeal.
“Sorry Kid” is somewhat based on an infamous woman who masqueraded as a billionaire heiress. Over electronic drums and plaintive guitar strums, he situates her as the “magpie” amongst these wealthy people; “Well the shakers got the money now / Movers and the shakers / They’re buying up the big lots now / What a girl to take it.” There isn’t any judgement or condemnation on Ben’s part – if anything, he seems to be making a tentative commentary on how people are driven to extremes in order to get their life together. However, there’s no denying that while this song is beautiful it has a bleak ending, with electric-sounding ambience which feels ominous – as if the woman stands behind an electric fence. These tracks all consolidate Ben as an incredible lyricist, both poetic and effective in painting these panoramas of doom that befall humanity.
Other highlights on this record include the stripped back track “Rookery”, which details the life of a man whose only real conflict comes from loud rooks being in the trees. There is an undercurrent of bitterness (“I bet you think everything’s in its rightful place / That sentiment is man’s disgrace”) that ultimately makes the song a poignant reflection on the drawbacks of settling for simplicity. “Far Out” is a moody, more straightforward track that could be about a group of people attempting to find new life while encountering resistance from opposing forces, and there’s even more ironic dark humour on the track; “Time to make a new plan / Said the gravedigger / How am I to make a killing? / What with all of this living?” Sometimes the darkness dissipates, as on “You Have Your Way”, which possesses a waltz rhythm with guitar, strings and subtle electronic elements.
Collections From The Whiteout excels in storytelling and lyrics but doesn’t always prove the easiest experience. However, this is an album that becomes more comfortable with each progressive listen, unwinding in the listener’s consciousness like the sung stories themselves. Ben deserves praise for taking risks and surprising his listeners with his experimental inclinations, and his collaborations with Dessner have proven very fruitful for the most part. It’s ultimately compelling, even as it takes time to properly unpack, but that is part of why Ben’s music is appealing and more importantly – affecting.