Album Review: Ben Howard – Noonday Dream

Louis Clark reviews the evolution of Ben Howard with his new album, Noonday Dream.

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Upon the release of debut album Every Kingdom seven years ago, not even Ben Howard himself could’ve imagined he would be releasing an album as mature and as different as Noonday Dream. If you were expecting him to tread along a similar path, prepare to be disappointed.

After his debut album, Ben had won British Breakthrough Act, British Solo Male Artist and had his album nominated for album of the year at the Brit awards. He went on to play Red Rocks, Hammersmith Apollo, and Glastonbury, gaining respect from the music industry at large for his ability to combine poetry with his unique style of guitar playing. Following the tour from his second album I Forget Where We Were, Howard took a couple of years off to reassess where to go next. He had achieved everything he could have ever wished to. It may sound like he had lost his mind – he shaved his head completely, travelled to Nicaragua and dug a 5×5 hole in his garden and sat in it while considering whether to drop music completely and become a poet. But to me, Ben sounds like someone lost, trying to find themselves and find purpose. This couldn’t be more evident even if he had tried in this album – it’s a dive into who Ben Howard really is.

The new sound has clearly been heavily influenced by band member Mickey Smith, frontman to A Blaze of Feather, that Ben is also apart of. ABOF has a more friendly mainstream sound than Ben’s new release, so to ease yourself into Noonday Dream as a transition, you should take a listen to ABOF’s self-titled release last year.

he shaved his head completely, travelled to Nicaragua and dug a 5×5 hole in his garden

Howard never likes to play a song the same way live twice, he’s always challenging himself and the listener, and this third album is a great testament to this; by the time we reach the final track “Murmurations”, it makes us question the very definition of a song. It’s this – the mystery of never knowing what to expect from him – that’s his greatest strength. From long drug-fuelled instrumental electric riffs heavily relying on pedal boards to stripped back acoustic guitar with poetic lyrics floating over the top, Howard uses music to invoke atmosphere and feelings, creating a distinct experience to each listener.

Howard performing at the Roundhouse in London.

The album opens warmly with “Nica Libres at Dusk”, a slow-burning swell of fingerstyle guitar that we are accustomed to, but with lyrics that we weren’t expecting. “Door is locked my gums are bleeding, outside she reads outside she’s reading” is an immediate departure from what we know, with gone are the summer imagery, rivers and broken relationships, in place of something more abstract. “Towing the Line” and “A Boat to an Island on the Wall” follow and are are instant fan favourites. “There’s Your Man” is the highlight of the album, with Alt-J inspired sound effects to listen out for.

In summary, it’s clear Ben retains his magic and is still very much developing and evolving even now as an artist, yet he still very much understands the flow of an album. From the welcoming yet unfamiliar album start, to track transitions such as the move from “All Down the Mines (Interlude)” into “The Defeat” being my favourite, there isn’t much more that can be said other than to take a listen. This one will never leave you bored.

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