Chock-full of dark corners and bright openings, long corridors and sharp stops, soft suggestions and provocative twists, I Forget Where We Were, English musician Ben Howard‘s latest effort out October 20 via Republic Records, is an emotional historiography with sentiment dripping from every inflection.
Howard is one of few magicians in a crowd of charmers giving true shape to the indie folk genre. After a considerable break since debut full-length Every Kingdom (2011), I Forget Where We Were is well worth the wait. The second installation presents a slightly darker perspective than its predecessor and carries a sharper, more amplified note. A London local in that proverbial ‘Promised Land’ and or breeding ground of contemporary music, Ben has tightened the drawstrings on his boxing gloves and stepped back into the ring to defend his top spot.
An avid surfer and environmental activist in his own right, these characteristics of Howard have transpired in his music. I Forget Where We Were has a sort of oceanic quality, each track flowing into the next, shifting tides and weather patterns in between. Thus it seems only appropriate, keeping to this theme, to review the album in sequence.
Rolling rhythms and delayed guitar overtop of somber lyrics in “Small Things” start the album off on a melancholy note. Howard poses the question, “Has the world gone mad, or is it me?”
Swelling with this momentum, “Rivers In Your Mouth” continues the use of heavy delay with a more locomotive beat and a lyrical tone that snatches the listener’s ear and pulls them in close with the hook “I’m sick and tired, oh I begged for the world to change, but it don’t.” The song’s mysterious subject takes on duality in its proclaimed loss of self with a simultaneous sense of direction — “you showed me life was learning how to be your friend.”
The title track unleashes a surge of sounds and stimulations; Howard’s lyrics provide the structure for dissonant verses which dissolve into a delicate and simply beautiful chorus of “Hello love my invincible friend / oh hello love the thistle and the bur / oh hello love, for you I have so many words / but I, I forget where we were.”
“She Treats Me Well” brings in Ben Howard’s characteristic acoustic sound and provides hints of folkier inspiration.
Then, opening with a complicated guitar progression and wavering cello, “In Dreams” is a brooding high note in the album as a tempest rolls over the turbulent sea of the audial landscape. “Oh in dreams I have watched it spin / Seen the violent crack of our tongues, where all light comes in,” Howard sings. Spilling into a slightly brighter space, the latter part of the song speaks of grace in defeat and a submission to love that quells loneliness.
Like the cyclic nature of currents and streams, the second half of the album aligns closely with the first half. If “I Forget Where We Were” was the last conscious reflection before our surrender to sleep, “Time is Dancing” is the dream that follows where a numbing nostalgia and a plea for forgiveness surfaces. It is “caught between, what she says and what she really means.” Nourishing the theme of “In Dreams” and cleaving a deeper rift in the earlier track’s emotional vein, “Evergreen” layers this lyric onto the conflicted longing expression: “Built a world without your love / now I’m all out at sea.”
Lead single “End of the Affair” is both massive and microscopic at the same time. Howard could be whispering this into the ear of a lover or screaming it from a rooftop — the message would remain clear — crystal. Hurt and regret seep from the seams of this track, building into an explosive outro with angry shouts asking, “And what of him / What the Hell, love.”
Stepping in to extinguish the flames of scorned affection, “Conrad” softens the blows and accusations of the preceding track and rationally realizes “We will never be the change to the weather and the sea / And you knew that… Oh, I loved you with the good and the careless of me / But it all goes back.”
Without adding salt to the wound, “All is Now Harmed” leaves the work on a soft conclusion. Tapping into a stream of consciousness, references to childhood, and shifts in one’s character over time, Howard gives significance to the culmination of life experiences and the weight of relationships in the development of identity.
With I Forget Where We Where there exists more than just one Kingdom in Ben Howard’s domain. Gaining entry into all the listener’s softer spots and presenting messages all too familiar to be ignored, the album’s use of colorful language and metaphor don’t distill its ability to highlight human emotion and speak to truths in their often unannounced fluctuation.
Without trying to cover up for mistakes or rationalize responses, Ben Howard reminds us that we are all vulnerable, scared, and — most importantly — dependent on the love that reassures us in our direction. It is this oceanic feeling that causes us to continually throw ourselves in the line of fire, hoping to be swept away in a flood of ecstasy, again.
Article by Conner Smith