Album Review: Ben Howard – ‘Noonday Dream’

Ben Howard has, this week, released his first album in four years, and it’s even more introspective than its predecessor. Noonday Dream is full of melancholy and complex soundscapes – a record that has to be listened to with care and attention. The album title captures what the record feels like as a whole – not a nightmare, although dark. Not a fantasy, although beautiful. A dream, surreal yet real, recalling moments of deja vu.

The soundscapes are well developed, and Howard seems to have fully matured into his own sound. Where the first album drew comparisons with the likes of George Ezra and Ed Sheeran, the second album went dark and showed that Howard wanted to create something of his own. With this third album, he seems to have shed his scales and balanced the darkness with a more complex tone.

Reverb guitar combined with smooth keys and Ben’s murmuring voice create a melancholic and even lethargic sound. It sounds a lot like A Blaze of Feather, Howard & friends’ side project that was released last year.

Howard’s lyricism draws listeners into scenes so complex that some may find themselves lost in the language. There are no catchy phrases, it is much more impressionistic in the usage of imagery and seems not concerned with traditional song structure.

Howard’s introspection as a songwriter seems to make him dissolve into the one who observes, and it is more vague and abstract, yet oddly detailed. A great example of this is in the first track, ‘Nica Libres at Dusk’, in which one line says “All of the mountains whisper knowingly”, which is continued with “I order a Colada”.

This surreal combination of specifics with poetic imagery is what blends so well together with the moody vocal delivery that was developed on I Forget Where We Were. This album is even more introspective and seems more at peace with the darkness that is present in Ben Howard’s songs.

The sound, although somewhat repetitive, stays interesting, mainly due to the precise production of the album – done by Howard himself. The underlying layers of people talking and sounds fading in and out makes it fascinating to hear, but only so when listened to in detail.

Each song takes its time to build, with an average Ben Howard song having a five minute playing time. The use of drums and different sonic layers is very effectively used in this album to create contrast. This is shown with the dark and intense beat at the end of ‘What the Moon Does’, and the aggressive bass synth combined with a pugnacious drumming pattern in ‘The Defeat’.

The most lovely surprise on an excellent third album is the return of India Bourne. Her cello work, something that was missing on I Forgot Where We Were, gives the sound a holistic volume, complimenting the melancholy felt throughout the songwriting and instrumentation of the album.

With Noonday Dream, Ben Howard continues to find new ways to create wonderful soundscapes and an immersive experience.

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