Review Summary: I may be troubled, but I'm gracious in defeat.
Of all the heartfelt pleas for understanding to be found on I Forget Where We Were
, none are more moving than the most direct and plain of all: "I was born to lie/Prove me wrong, prove me wrong." While most of the album seems to take an uncomfortably too-familiar shape as messages from a troubled mind for the ears of loved ones (which range from desperate to resigned to furious), I Forget Where We Were
is ultimately an album made for no-one but the singer-songwriter himself. It is an album that disregards catchiness, familiarity and warmth, the very things which made Howard notable in the first place, for a coldness that is both detached and uncomfortably close. And if there's a single message or morale to be gathered here that is meant for anyone except Ben Howard, it's that loneliness and disassociation can dull even the sharpest of minds, and darken even the brightest melody.
It's hard to imagine I Forget Where We Were
having a more fitting album art than it already does. The classic symbol of standing half in light and half in shadow communicates more than any other the simple truth that drives this sophomore release: "I am not feeling okay." The music from the get-go does not shy away from reflecting this: Howard's gorgeous guitar tone is frequently the only source of familiarity or comfort within the music, backed as it is by almost non-existent bass and drums. Even the songs where Howard breaks out his signature acoustic guitar refuse to fall within the realm of upbeat music, with "In Dreams" opting for an urgent pace to mirror the near-frantic state of mind whilst "Evergeen" slows the pace of the album to a resigned crawl. The higher pitched vocals of Every Kingdom are now a thing of the past, replaced by a lower, more self-contained delivery which oscillates between pained and defeated. Howard's vocal delivery is far from perfect, yet it is the imperfections where we see him at the most honest; like the ever-so-slight, yet infinitely telling voice break on "End of the Affair"'s "Now I watch her/Running round in love again" chorus. From front to back, I Forget Where We Were
is for every second uncompromising and honest in its mission statement: that this is not the Ben Howard you used to know.
There is perhaps no better indicator of this change than the distant, claustrophobic masterpiece that is "Time is Dancing". The melody of "Hold it in, now let's go dancing/I do believe we're only passing through" is of itself catchy and memorable enough to suggest lead single potential. Yet while the 2011 Ben Howard – that's the bright-eyed, inviting, welcoming "Keep Your Head Up" Ben Howard – would likely have set this melody to a bouncy acoustic guitar riff, with maybe some sing-along-with-me gang vocals and hand claps, we are not dealing with the 2011 Ben Howard. The 2014 version seems all too aware of mishaps of the past. With a seeming iron-clad determination to distance himself from the chart-toppers of his past, this Ben Howard drowns the catchy chorus melody in a murky, impenetrable sea of distorted guitar, propelled by only the simplest of drumbeats. Not only does this treatment allow the near-seven minute tune to reach its full potential, the detachment afforded by the distance of the melody somehow makes it all the more poignant and touching. Lines that may have seemed a little too
bright-eyed with an acoustic guitar lifting them up are instead transformed into biting, cynical pieces: "Wired again, now look who's laughing/You again, oh you oh you oh you."
It speaks to the cohesion of I Forget Where We Were
as a whole that the lyrics are tailored to suit the directness of the music, or perhaps vice versa. In either case, both operate on the assumption that less is more and the simpler the better. It is this stark simplicity that drives every song and allows Howard to reveal his true potential as an artist and lyricist. While most of the lyrics fall under either resigned or purely depressed, it is in the heart-racing final section of "End of the Affair" where Howard allows himself to be shown at his most honest – and with that honesty comes nothing but anger. In testament to the simpler is better motto, the album's best and most emotional moment is direct and unmistakeably plain: "This is it/This is just it/Go to him/What the hell, love?/What the hell?" Vocally, we see a side of Howard that is entirely new: aggressive, powerful, really pissed off. The vocals are faint and soaked in echo, almost as if Howard is (very understandably) hesitant to show his emotions so plainly on record for every listener to see, but we see it all the same. "In Dreams"' final statement of "I may be troubled, but I'm gracious in defeat" is above all a perfect indicator of Howard's willingness to take the risk of putting his feelings on record in such a final, irreversable way. He may be troubled, he may be frightened of the world or just of himself, and he may be nauseated by his own lies. But if there's one thing that Ben Howard definitely is, above all else, it's honest.