Ben Howard – Noonday Dream

The Cornwallian singer/songwriter has cut an unlikely hero at times. Young teenagers couldn’t get enough of him when he first appeared, even though he was never a teenage heartthrob in the traditional sense. Witnessing him once when he was on the cusp of big things, a very noticeable thing about Howard was how wrapped up in the music, oblivious to the almost invariably younger audience present. Yet they could see and hear a special talent, one with oodles of musicality and intelligence, blanketed by a cool-yet-down-to-earth charm, and topped off by those vaguely south-west beach dude looks.

Now 31, Howard has matured into one of the most unpredictably talented artists of the 21st century. One who resists the pressure to play the fame game, nor release before he is ready. This is only his third long player, nearly four years after the release of the chart-topping I Forget Where We Were. It was recorded in various locations including Sawmills Studio in Cornwall, and southwest France with his familiar band, now named A Blaze of Feather, that includes India Bourne, Mickey Smith (who also co-produced the album), Nat Wason, Chris Bond, Rich Thomas and Kyle Keegan. His voice is lower, more of a mumble nowadays, the songs all but losing any semblance of traditional structure, and the rootsy-folk sound of his earlier work. Here, Howard meditates on life as a dream, and dreaming as life, the lyrics overwhelmingly poetically abstruse, the music a pot-pourri of sounds, effects, textures, but with melody lines and beats and rhythms holding it all together by a thread.

It’s all in the title, really. Noonday Dream is a series of half-asleep musical workouts, with echoes of alt-J and Lyndsey Buckingham throughout, albeit wrapped up in many different shades; from sunny optimism to gloomy pessimism, and never allowed to just aimlessly drift, even though much of the material here extends well beyond five minutes. There is a great deal of texture and colour everywhere, mainly supplied by multiple guitars and synths, adding sonic splashes and evocative tones. Such as on the lead track ‘Nica Libres at Dusk’, based on an invitation to dream, according to Howard, with no finality to the song’s content; its open-ended lyrics and music inviting a pair of headphones to luxuriate in the carefully balanced approach where raw electronics and an improvisatory feel meets an underlying rhythmic foundation, and atmospheric sheen.

‘Towing the Line’ features distant piano and voices before it becomes a relatively minimalist soundscape of electric, synth, acoustic, and vocoder. While the seven minute epic ‘A Boat To An Island On The Wall’ is but one of several tracks that feature field recordings of people’s voices and scenes, a patchwork of ideas and sounds sewn into a turbulent yet meditative whole, with obscure lyrics that are inviting yet perplexing: “Boat to an island on the wall / A hand striking in slow motion / Future singing in the field / Shooting season’s open“.

On ‘There’s Your Man’, Howard’s voice sounds almost like a guide vocal, a little back in the mix, and rough at the edges, the foundation over which multiple chiming and echoing guitars, drums and bass, push and pull together in dream-like fashion. The noir-ish ‘The Defeat’ features what sounds like a manipulated didgeridoo, underpinning this dark bassy rumbler not a million miles away from Massive Attack’s penchant for gloom groove, again sounds in and out of the mix adding to the sense of foreboding, while final track ‘Murmurations’ brings back a sense of quite and stillness, as Howard sings: “It’s so peaceful here, no one to fuck it up.”

Noonday Dream is an extraordinary work from an artist who, like a Radiohead or alt-J, has circumvented the norms of an often orthodox music industry, to produce strong and vibrant artistic statements. Words and music that are open to interpretation and multiple meanings, and yet meshing into a distinctive sound that speaks of sophistication and, yes, a wisened maturity.

Jeff Hemmings