The highly anticipated sophomore LP from singer-songwriter Ben Howard was finally released this past week, titled “I Forget Where We Were.” Since his last album, which he released back in 2011, he won the Brit Awards for British breakthrough act and British solo male artist in the same year. It came as no surprise, considering the amount of radio play his music (still) gets in Britain despite being so different from typical radio pop. That’s the beauty of Howard’s music – it appeals to such a variety of audiences, from guitar-enthusiasts who enjoy his pick-and-go melodies and abnormal tunings to teenage girls who bask in the dark, broody atmosphere of his more serious songs.
In comparison to his last album, Howard’s sophomore effort likely caught his fans off guard, but pleased us all nonetheless. What struck me after the first listen-through was how much more mature and developed his sound seemed, how it was mostly electric guitar as opposed to his usual acoustic style and how there was a steady, serious tone from start to finish. The first album consisted mostly of songs that he had written growing up and in college, and included a decent amount of lighter, happier, upbeat songs with strong acoustic melodies. The songs sometimes shifted completely from start to finish, with different melodies and progressions throughout single tracks. In the new album most songs hit the five-six minute range, but instead of totally changing pace, they expand on the roots laid by the same progression in an epic instrumental breakdown.
This happens in at least two of the songs on the album, and it’s as amazing as you would hope each time. These are some my favorite tracks on the album, including “Rivers in Your Mouth” and “End of the Affair.” Howard sets a deep, atmospheric tone in the first half of the songs and meditates on it by repeating the progression and even the exact same lyrics in the verses. This in effect immerses the listener into the dark, ambient trance that seems like the backbone of the album. Instead of getting old after a few listens due to the repetitive nature, the album progressively grows on you each time you listen. Then, as if to purposely make the songs incredibly enjoyable to play live, Howard transitions into the grand, rhythmic, electric-guitar-and-backbeat breakdown that is so infectiously cool and catchy that you can’t help but tap your fingers. It’s the kind of breakdown that makes it worth listening to a six-minute song (watch out, Justin Timberlake).
A few of the songs on the album are more light-hearted and cheery, but not in the youthful and exciting way they were on the first LP. I would describe them more as “content” and “what my grandmother would probably prefer to listen to if she had to pick from any of the songs.” This is pretty evident in the song titles like “She Treats Me Well” and “Time is Dancing.” They’re good tunes, just not as fun as you might hope. On the contrary, the track “Conrad” is an amazing mix of both the meditative electric guitar progression and a more lighthearted vibe. Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s story “The Tale,” Howard constructs what might be one of the best songs on the album with lyrical imagery that relates to the story.
In a recent interview with HungerTV, Howard talked about the process of writing a second album and the pressures of living up to expectations. He said that those pressures were most of the reason he paced himself and took so long to finish the album, trying his best to write the music for the sake of writing music itself and paying no mind to which audiences would be pleased or displeased by the direction he was going. I think this notion is very evident in the songs. He takes risks with the instrumental breakdowns, repetitive lyrics and progressions, and by deciding to go easy on the melodies and focus more on the atmosphere. As both a music critic and Ben Howard fan, I would say these risks certainly paid off.