Ben Howard’s fourth album, ‘Collections From the Whiteout’, is something of a time capsule, a freeze-frame of the headlines that caught the London-born musician’s attention and distracted him from himself in our current predicament. That he’s given this to the world in 2021, when a global pandemic has pummelled our collective attention span to a crisp, seems pretty apt.
‘Collections’ announces a change of pace from Howard’s signature folky material, thanks to co-producer Aaron Dessner – after working with Taylor Swift on ‘folklore’ and ‘evermore’, the National man is in high demand. There’s a more atmospheric, textured sonic palette at play, the result of letting more ideas flow. ’Follies Fixture’ rushes to life with Eno-style skittering synths like a rocket into the stratosphere – Howard’s gentle vocals then emerge and remain steadfast, not better or worse than on previous records; just always reliable.
The album collages news snippets and anecdotes to form the lyrical backbone, from the 1968 death of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst on the earthy, intriguing ‘Crowhurst’s Meme’ to the growling distortion of ‘Finders Keepers’, which is about the dismembered body a friend of Howard’s father found floating along the Thames in a suitcase. Such peculiar, unnerving stories are performed with what Howard has called “a spaceship of pedal boards”. The acoustic guitars of yore don’t lose their place entirely, but enter the fold a minute or two into proceedings, waiting much longer than usual for the dust to settle.
Howard’s expansion, both in terms of production and the stories he wishes to tell, creates a cacophonous record with complex, sometimes muddy instrumentation and stark melodies. It’s sometimes satisfying and cathartic to dig through the rubble and find a diamond; sometimes too chaotic to try.
Experimentation pays off on the robust ‘Far Out’ and then on ‘Rookery’, a folky, stripped-back number reminiscent of Howard’s more melancholy days. Even the middling songs boast glimpses of brilliance – take the dumbfounding and brusque intro of ‘Sage That She Was Burning’, and the chugging steam-train beat of ‘Make Arrangements’, which bleeds into a Dessner guitar line almost identical to his work on Swift’s ‘peace’. The goal was perhaps to capture the sheer breadth of Howard’s ideas, but the result is hit and miss; a little judicious editing would have gone a long way.
More rewarding than meandering 2018 album ‘Noonday Dream’ yet not as piercing as 2014’s ‘I Forget Where We Are’, Ben Howard’s fourth record sees the artist move beyond his usual methods and proves, if anything, that he has too many good ideas to stay focused. Of all the problems to have, it’s a pretty good one.
Release date: March 26
Record label: Island Records