Ben Howard Captures the Reflective Power of Nature on ‘Noonday Dream’

Ben Howard’s “Noonday Dream,” recorded between two secluded studios in southwest France and the south coast of Cornwall, England, sounds a bit like the sonic equivalent of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” It’s the sound of a restless spirit grown claustrophobic from the clutter, chaos, and mechanical monotony, seeking refuge, and attempting more freely authentic expression in a more spacious environment, one in which reflection comes more as a natural phenomenon than a forced activity. This is Howard’s fourth album, and it sounds, very much, like an artist starting to feel his way through, getting comfortable in his own ground. This is “folk” music of a decidedly British strain — much more Syd Barrett than Woody Guthrie — although neither would really do justice.   

Opener “Nica Libres At Dusk” sets the tone effectively, with Howard’s layered, hushed, almost monotone vocals, over the melancholy, wistful guitar strumming, creating a meditative, trancelike feel. It’s so mellow as to give the sensation of a pause in time, to take everything in leisurely, at one’s liberty, and really soak in all the otherwise unappreciated depth and beauty of one’s surroundings. When the chorus strikes, the slight acceleration of pace sounds transcendent and ethereal, and Howard continues to utter his phrases with the syllabic rigidity of a yogi reciting mantras, occasionally freeing himself into an actual melody, and making it all the more meaningful, from the built anticipation.

One rather telling line is, “Outside she’s reading / The evacuation procedure out loud.” “Evacuation procedure” has the ring of, say, legal matters, or at least technical things — trivial matters for someone who is above it all — or at least unconcerned with it all. It’s funny that Howard describes her as being “outside,” as every aspect of his record, from the guitar pick reverberations to the cover art, stituatutes the recording decidedly in the outside. It seems her “outside” is his inside — mind blown?

“Towing the Line” is ostensibly a pun on “toeing the line,” going through the motions, if you will. Howard sings, “I watched the host drink all the wine / And now she rambles through the who and who of note.” Imagine a gluttonous, portly figure, keeping the bottles of Blue Nun coming steadily, gossiping away with gusto about everyone and their mother. Howard continues, “Down here I crow for you, you crow for me.”  It’s the sensation of hollering at one another, with no real connection, filling the void the vapid, meaningless filler, merely because that’s the default way of killing time. Howard goes on, “I watched the host drink all the wine / And now I’m purring for a drop of anything.” “Purring” is an apt word, as it draws attention to how severely the dictates of, say, proprietary/taste/normalcy/sophistication can estrange us so completely from our natural drives and inclinations that we end up two zombies staring at one another over a coffee table, clueless as to how and what to make of this alien situation.

“The Defeat” is considerably more rhythmic-centered than the rest of the album, with a vaguely didgeridoo sound in the mix, giving it a vaguely spooky vibe, although still in a calm, rustic way. Where this came from, exactly, remains a mystery, but it likely has at least a little to do with Howards spending time in Cornwall. He also recorded part of the record in the south of France– but if this record reminds you of “Exile On Main Street,” you probably need to spend more time in the woods. Cornwall, on the other hand, has spawned such artists as Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin. Needless to say, that turned out far differently, but there’s something about how the open space enables and motivates creativity, and its very palpable in Howard’s latest.

The interlude titled “All Down the Mines” is very strange, to say the least. It’s muffled sound, eventually clearing up enough to reveal a singer singing the titular line, still very muffled, backed by a rather cherry, folky guitar accompaniment. What is this supposed to be? Up to you. “A Boat To an Island, Pt. 2 / Agatha’s Song” captures what the title suggests, with faint percussion conjuring the sound of a boat rowing ever so slightly. It’s also a very ambient affair, recalling some of Brian Eno’s work. Just the sound of the guitar picks creates a ripple that echoes and reverberates. And the ringing tones veer off and develop into distorted drones, vaguely evoking the feel of drone artists like Jefre Cantu-Ladesma.   

Howard has a very dynamic vocal range. On “There’s Your Man,” he delves into the the sort of sonic landscape of Thom Yorke in one of the latter’s emotive acoustic numbers. “Murmurations” really captures Howard excelling at his craft, taking simple snippets and making them speak volumes. The guitar picking alone resonates into sirens, feedback, violins, and all the rest. The amalgamated sounds create the sensation of tip toeing, rivers flowing, etc.

If there’s any complaint that comes to mind to the soul designated to the unfortunately criticism-welcoming role of “critic,” it would probably be that the songs lack a certain immediacy. On the other hand, there is a strain of authenticity-obsessed music that prides itself, precisely, on its its lack of such “immediacy.” Either way, this is nothing more than a bit of critical drivel, to take up a couple words, and hopefully give a smile. All in all, Ben Howard’s latest is a refreshing,sincere release that provides an escape from the mundanity of everything, and Howard manages to carry it out with a charming, authentic sincerity, and a musical correspondence that make for a refreshing listen.   

Noonday Dream” is available June 1 on Apple Music.