Since the release of his 2011 debut Every Kingdom, Ben Howard has undeniably committed to one thing: persistent self-reinvention. His first recording is of a piece with the ostensible “folk revival” in the late 2000s and early 2010s, with the songs centering on Howard’s gentle, at times creaky tenor vocals and impressive fingerstyle guitar technique. He could have easily kept recycling that approach and maintained a successful profile. Every Kingdom is still a pleasing listen, and Howard’s guitar chops and unusual instrument tunings put him a notch above many of his folk-pop contemporaries.
However, with 2014’s I Forgot Where We Were and 2018’s Noonday Dream, Howard pushed himself into increasingly more textural, abstract sonic terrain, favoring soundscapes over the familiar singer-with-a-guitar setup. The latter of those two features Howard’s most free-form songwriting, led by mood pieces “Nica Libres at Dusk” and “A Boat to an Island on the Wall”. Nothing on his second or third studio outings matches the highs of Every Kingdom, but Howard should be credited for never resting on his laurels.
And with Collections from the Whiteout, his fourth LP, Howard continues pushing forward into new sonic terrain. He, joined by producer and collaborator Aaron Dessner (of the National fame), has put together a collection of songs that refract the singer/songwriter material with which he began his career. At base, tunes like “What a Day” and “Far Out” follow in familiar modes: the engine of each song, both in verse/chorus structure, consists of Howard’s voice and a core guitar part – a loopy acoustic figure on the former and a nimble electric riff on the latter. But Howard and Dessner rarely leave any song in its barest state, except for the two fleeting voice-and-guitar numbers “Rookery” and “Buzzard”.
Whiteout is adorned in synthesizers and textural interludes, and the songs generally feel like the culmination of several disparate ideas. Sonically the record is something of a satellite case to the National’s most recent album, I am Easy to Find, with the latter’s “You Had Your Soul with You” in particular bearing a strong family resemblance to Whiteout’s dreamy opener “Follies Fixture”.
The result of Howard and Dessner’s collaboration is some of the most intriguing music of the former’s career. The juxtaposition of brooding distortion and minor-key piano melodies on “Crowhurst’s Meme” and “Sage that She Was Burning” evokes, of all things, Linkin Park’s Meteora, while some expert drumming from Yussef Dayes pushes those tracks into almost jazzy territory. “The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell” successfully marries aqueous electronic textures with a delicate string arrangement.
On “What a Day”, Howard does the best work he’s ever done in synthesizing the music of Every Kingdom with the more ambitious compositional approaches he adopted on the records that followed his debut. Instead of a stripped-down guitar part, multiple guitar tracks are layered atop each other, producing a delightful shimmering quality that complements his fragile vocal. Listening to Whiteout, one can hear Howard trying to pursue new ways of writing and producing songs. He makes very few conventional choices, preferring sonic montages to straightforwardly crafted tunes.
But this musical adventurousness, unfortunately, comes with a corresponding lack of focus. With its just-over-an-hour runtime and collage-like aesthetic, Collections from the Whiteout feels like a shaggy first draft in need of editing. One would normally expect to find brief pieces like “Finders Keepers” or “Buzzard” on a deluxe edition of an album with the B-sides included rather than on the main tracklist. What’s more, the musical restlessness of Whiteout also obscures Howard’s storytelling aspirations. Tracks like “Sorry Kid” (about the social-climbing con artist Anna Delvey) and “The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell” (whose eponymous figure committed suicide in 2018 after stealing a small turboprop plane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport) promise narratives-in-miniature. However, it’s hard for the lyrics to come across directly in the whirl of the production and arrangements.
If Whiteout is an imperfect album, it is one that also evinces Howard’s refusal to stay in a single musical lane. If his career so far is any indication, when his next album drops, we’ll hear a new Howard, and the glimmers of brilliance on this record signal that perhaps the best of him is yet to come.