Review Summary: I'm aware of the allegory, yes it's plain.
An artist moving away from a guitar after using it as their primary instrument will always create a visceral reaction from fans of said artists. Whether it’s a pop punk band being called sell-outs or exponentially increasing their fanbase when they choose to focus more on the pop aspect of their sound or a folk artist being hailed as either “brilliant” or “pretentious” when they move away from acoustic cabin recordings to something far more unrestrained, this particular change in sound almost always has mixed reactions. Collections From the Whiteout
is almost certain to have that same response. Ben Howard began as a critically acclaimed folk darling that also managed to find mainstream success and has slowly been shedding that image since, first going darker, then dreamier, and now just plain different.
It’s not as if Howard abandoned his guitar completely, but for someone known as being one of the most interesting and talented guitar players in his field, the emphasis on this talent of his is certainly no longer at the forefront. Instead there are cleverly written riffs written into tape loops or extended into the lengths of full songs while working in tandem with the controlled chaos of Aaron Dessner’s production. There are so many details crammed into every single song, with contributions from talented musicians and creators slipping into each second. Gone is much of the refinement of Howard’s previous work. There are not many choruses to be found on the album, nor are there many typical song structures. “Follies Fixture” will probably divide old fans from its opening seconds, with a scattering synth leading it in and almost being more of a primary focus with Howard’s simple guitars. This is the musical style that is most common - Beat heavy, production heavy, drum machine heavy, and guitar accompanied. But even with that distinction, is still quite a light album in sound, nearly laidback in areas - The brooding, personal darkness that has been a hallmark of Howard’s work is not the primary focus of Collections From the Whiteout
Another departure of Howard’s could be the cause of that change in atmosphere. Instead of focusing on his own soul-searching journey, the majority of the songs here focus instead on outside stories, headlines from the past few years that have captured Howard’s attention. “Crowhurst’s Meme” is about amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst who drowned while attempting to sail the world, and the synth beat that accompanies it has, as Howard himself described it, a “seasick” quality. This is perhaps where Dessner’s production is most successful, as it truly brings much of the story to life around Howard’s vocals, with interjecting instruments creating a sense of tension that pairs with Howard’s storytelling. “Finders Keepers” follows immediately after and pushes even further into even stranger territory, both instrumentally and lyrically. The song is primarily a rushed synth beat and staccato piano backing Howard as he sings the story of a friend’s father who found a dead body in a suitcase in the Thames. Now this isn’t to say that there is no personal reflection from Howard on these songs - He’s not simply telling stories, but using these stories as allegories for emotional experiences, often in quite powerful ways. The oddity of the musical contributions is a pretty perfect vehicle for many of these allegories. There certainly are times when the production becomes overwhelming, such as on “Sage That She Was Burning”, where the acoustic bridge is the most appealing part of the song, but also songs where Dessner’s loop-focused production pairs beautifully with Howard’s lyrical delivery, “The Strange Last Flight of Howard Russell” being a prime example.
With all that being said, one of the main difficulties with accepting Howard’s sound on Collections From the Whiteout
is that some of the strongest songs on the album are more reminiscent of his past work than of his new sound. “What A Day” takes the styles of his biggest hits and adds odd time signatures and Dessner’s scattered production, leading to a perfect blend of new and old. “You Have Your Way” seems to have been the most natural progression in sound from I Forgot Where We Were
and Noonday Dream
, even if it is quite boring lyrically. Then there is “Rookery”, which is just Howard, his guitar, and painfully personal lyrics. As he sings “Oh, look at me/The definition of futility”
, it’s difficult to not long for the brooding guitar driven rock/folk that he had so nearly mastered. While he is mostly successful with the unique production that he goes for, the least experimental songs are also perhaps the best on the album. It leaves Collections From the Whiteout
in a precarious position. It is both a sign of the brilliant songwriting and evolution of Ben Howard, but also a sign that he could have still successfully written an album that was an evolution of his sound, but not quite as much of a departure. It’s fascinating, it’s meticulous, and it’s bound to be divisive.