Ben Howard
Collections from the Whiteout


4.0
excellent

Review

by Mathias CONTRIBUTOR (53 Reviews)
March 28th, 2021 | 120 replies


Release Date: 03/26/2021 | Tracklist

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.



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user ratings (104)
3.9
excellent


Comments:Add a Comment 
dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
March 28th 2021


1549 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

It was quite difficult to write about this one without constantly referencing his past work, so I'm afraid this review won't do quite as much for people who are new to Ben Howard. Feedback is welcome!



I enjoyed this a lot, but don't think it will ever be my go to Ben Howard

Digging: Valerie June - The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers

Tunaboy45
March 28th 2021


17600 Comments


Belter of an album, it may sound breezier than his others but the darkness of much of the lyricism (especially Finders Keepers) contrasts nicely. Embracing electronics in this way is such a John Martyn move too.

Great review.

Digging: Xiu Xiu - OH NO

Dewinged
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2021


24160 Comments


Great write up my friend. I still need more time with this one, even if my first impression was quite underwhelming, I haven't given up yet.

Digging: Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The LSO - Promises

SowingSeason
Moderator
March 29th 2021


37090 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Splendid job with the review, hits the nail on the head. I still am not sold on this in the slightest - the transition from guitars to something more unrestrained is fine, but these atmospheres and patterns are incredibly vanilla to the point that it noticeably brings down the entire project. Still, I refuse to drop my rating below a 3.5 at the moment because I keep waiting for it to grow. I really want it to.

Digging: Manchester Orchestra - The Million Masks Of God

po0ty
March 29th 2021


654 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

someone somewhere called this ben's covid bedroom mixtape, and i can see that. i don't see myself liking this more than Noonday or I Forget but its a nice diversification of his catalog. i do like that i have no idea what he's going to make next though. but if i'm being honest i hope the collab with Dessner was a one time thing.

BlushfulHippocrene
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2021


3626 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Nice work as always Mathias. Can't get enough of this album myself, it is definitely my favourite Ben on first listens. Some of the best lyrics maybe ever, I think.

Sunnyvale
Contributing Reviewer
March 29th 2021


2160 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Impressed with this review, especially as I'm all over the place with my thoughts about this album. I find it mostly pleasant but forgettable, but at the same time something about it keeps me coming back, so it may well grow on me.

IIAphelionII
March 29th 2021


5 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I'm loving this. Wont rate it for another few listens probably, but it'l probably land around a 4. Probably wont like it more than Noonday though.

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2021


44927 Comments

Album Rating: 3.2 | Sound Off

great review



wish I could buy into the new production style because I don't oppose him moving away from the guitar stuff at all, but most of it just feels lazy, like he threw first vocal takes over some leftover beats



not convinced the songs themselves are that good underneath it all too. except Rookery which as I've said is just absolutely butchered on here from the original

Digging: The Antlers - Green to Gold

ABjordanMM
March 29th 2021


1737 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

There’s something special about the lyrics here. Definitely the star of the show

dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
March 29th 2021


1549 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Yeah I think this just “barely” worked for me. Like it all came together in a way that I really enjoyed, but if just a little bit changed (like the lyrics weren’t good or some of the arrangements didn’t hit me in the way they did), this would have dropped a lot. It’s a weird album that’s not a 4 bordering on a 3.5, but more a 4 bordering on a 2.5, if that makes sense

And yes, agreed on the lyrics! Probably should have touched on them more - They read like poetry and are probably some of the best that he’s done. Taking a step back from the intrinsic approach really worked

Tunaboy45
March 29th 2021


17600 Comments


I do get that, everything feels very precariously balanced but it all just about comes together.

Slex
March 29th 2021


10983 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

There's something about his songwriting that is so meticulous and lived in that I could see him surviving multiple sound changes tbh



That being said I wish I knew what happened to make this dude practically forsake electric guitar

Digging: Kali Masi - Laughs

dedex
Contributing Reviewer
March 29th 2021


7430 Comments

Album Rating: 2.5 | Sound Off

Wasn't convinced by this at all - but you explain well why you like it

Digging: Andy Stott - Never the Right Time

DoofDoof
March 29th 2021


9054 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

growing on me

johnnyblaze
March 29th 2021


3322 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

nice review! its not terrible and i know it will grow on me like Ben's songwriting and melodies always do, but i hear Dessner far too much. from the shitty thin guitar tones (far out), to the pointless electronic additions(crowhurst), to whatever the fuck is going on in the back of You Have your Way and in the fore of Sage. Overproduced.

DoofDoof
March 29th 2021


9054 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

'but i hear Dessner far too much'



his work is more appreciated by me here than on recent National albums actually

Tunaboy45
March 29th 2021


17600 Comments


This works in much the same way Sleep Well Beast does for me: artists bringing the best out of each other and complementing the core sound with some really well-produced electronics. It has a really unique flavour, especially in the context of Ben's discography.

SowingSeason
Moderator
March 29th 2021


37090 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I just feel like the beats/soundscapes or whatever you want to call them are often way too busy for whatever is going on. If Noonday Dream felt organic like boots kicking up desert sand, then this feels plasticized. Like a "Ben Howard performs Ben Howard" greatest hits except all the songs are boring. I dunno, I might be lowering my rating and it's just unfathomable to me how blandly this was actually done.

Gyromania
March 29th 2021


32213 Comments


never made it through a ben howard album without falling asleep



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