By Mark Newell
Ben Howard took no time at all earning his stripes as an eclectic British folk musician through his debut album Every Kingdom in 2011. The ten tracks were packed full of nostalgic imagery harking back to an adventurous and bold youth, making it an immediate hit internationally.
The collection of jovial instrumentals and carefully crafted songwriting would lead to Howard winning two Brit Awards and being nominated for a Mercury Prize off the back of the album.
In a tremendous display of courage, Howard later stepped away from this safety net of British folk-pop responsible for his rise to fame. He alluded to a change in musical direction through the Burgh Island EP which he released in 2012.
Following this release his live performances were littered with mysterious soundscapes and even a couple of uncharacteristically dark tracks. Then things went quiet. As Howard and the band continued to retreat into their silence, speculative whispers of new material grew louder.
The summer of 2014 concluded with an eagerly awaited Ben Howard single after much anticipation. The release of I Forget Where We Were, which would become the title track for his forthcoming album, marked a pivotal point in Howard’s musical output. There was no more “hot sand on toes”, no “eyes like wild flowers” and certainly no “demons of change.” Instead we were presented with an emotional tale of difference between two lovers.
The track meanders through a conflicting narrative accompanied by a moody soundtrack which gradually blossoms into an enthralling crescendo. Much like the other nine tracks, ‘I Forget Where We Were’ is rife with symbolism and various motifs are explored via a labyrinth of complex metaphors and vivid imagery.
Throughout the journey of the album Ben Howard explores topics like confusion, mortality and human insignificance. ‘Time Is Dancing’ serves as a seemingly optimistic outlook on the inevitability of time passing while two tracks later, during ‘End Of The Affair,’ we are exposed to what is perhaps the most graphic display of turmoil on the entire album. Howard’s ability to write such a profoundly complex album that evokes so much emotion in listeners, often for vastly different reasons, is remarkable.
The production on the album, courtesy of long time collaborator Chris Bond, is a true showcase of artistic experimentation. Harmonics and subtle nuances reverberate through the instrumentation, adding a distinctive character to the overall feel of the album. The instrumentals tend to mirror the often turbulent subject matter of the tracks, notably in ‘All Is Now Harmed’ where the track evolves into the wash of crashing drums that concludes the album.
From scenes of whimsical dancing to outpourings of raw passion, ‘I Forget Where We Were’ is a deeply emotional excursion. The poetic value of the album is so impressive that each track serves as a virtually inexhaustible source of personal interpretation, depending on the listeners individual experiences.
The album’s hypnotic instrumentation and daring sound design set a bar for British folk musicians and marked a controversial stylistic change in Howard’s music.
Ben Howard’s musical transition forced folk music fans out of their comfort zone and presented them with a new take on what the genre was capable of. For this reason it is important to listen to ‘I Forget Where We Were’ retrospectively. It serves as a landmark in Ben Howard’s musical and personal journey and was seminal to his later work.
The musical experimentation and lyrical complexity Howard exhibited on this album would go on to influence his most recent full length album ‘Noonday Dream.’ This latest album saw Howard continue down his path of writing and producing material that transcended genre boundaries and challenged peoples’ expectations of him as a folk music artist.