Noonday Dream, the third studio record by the English singer-songwriter Ben Howard, transports the listener right from its opening moments. To start, one must first examine the album’s sleeve art, a photograph of Howard hunched amongst a group of rocks in a desert, so distant in the shot that for a moment he appears to be a rock himself.
This image comes to life when the sun-stroked opening notes of “Nica Libres at Dusk” begin. Listening to this music one really can feel stranded in the desert. Howard’s strident and tension-filled guitar plucking imbues the song with the sense of a forthcoming crescendo, but it never comes. The gloomy chord progression and dusky electronic textures of “Nica Libres at Dusk” create a suspenseful atmosphere, made more concrete by Howard’s opening narrative: “Door is locked / My gums are bleeding / Outside she reads / Outside she’s reading / The evacuation procedure out loud.” Yet when the chorus arrives, Howard takes on a sunnier disposition, as the chords turn major key: “I order a Colada / And sit, count my dollars / And watch eagles soar in circles / Perpetually.” There’s melancholy to these observations, but still, Howard offers the listeners a glimmering mirage of beauty out in this aural desert.
Over the course of its six and a half minute runtime “Nica Libres at Dusk” creates a distinctive and inviting atmosphere. In contemplating the vast and lonely space where human life rarely treads for long, Howard ably paints a sonic picture of this sand-swept landscape. Noonday Dream follows the lead established by “Nica Libres at Dusk” for the remainder of its nine tracks. These are spacey, often free-form songs, a clear and distinct break from Howard’s previous two LPs, 2011’s Every Kingdom and 2014’s I Forget Where We Were. The songs of Noonday Dream contain verses and choruses, but in contrast to the more radio-friendly acoustic pop fare of Every Kingdom, Howard bathes these tracks in synthesizers, vocal manipulation, and moody production. That results in a collection of what one might call “soundscapes” more than traditional songs.
Listening to Noonday Dream, I am reminded, as I often am, that critics regularly if not often get young artists wrong. When I reviewed Every Kingdom for this publication back in 2012, I assumed that Howard was yet another entry into the folk-pop fold, someone to put in conversation, as I did, with other popular British acts like Mumford & Sons. And in my defense, much of Every Kingdom plays to pop radio, even as Howard’s dexterous guitar playing distances him from many of his pop-folk and folk revival contemporaries. The atypical guitar tunings and finger-picking patterns of Every Kingdom showcase a distinctive talent of Howard’s, yet his often flashy guitar performances on that album don’t detract from genuinely catchy choruses and refrains on tracks like “The Wolves” and “Only Love”.
On I Forget Where We Were and now Noonday Dream, Howard steps away from the music of Every Kingdom. Every now and again, his finger-picking skills take front and center – see tunes like “In Dreams” – but by and large he’s moved toward creating ambiances rather than easily digestible songs. Upon hearing a piece like “Nica Libres at Dusk” I knew that I underestimated Howard. Compositionally, he is indeed capable of much more than expertly played folk-pop. Yet as much as Noonday Dream represents a significant step forward for Howard, the somewhat formless shape of his third album indicates that he still has some kinks to work out as he transitions to a more ambient approach to arrangement.
After the gorgeous invitation to the record that is “Nica Libres at Dusk”, Noonday Dream hits an early peak with the suite-like “A Boat to an Island on the Wall”, which builds from an almost completely ambient opening to an energetic, electric guitar-driven coda. (Its second part, “Agatha’s Song”, offers little in extending the track, ambling through a series of minimalist percussion and lonely guitar notes.) To update the type of comparisons I made in my Every Kingdom review, Noonday Dream is the 22, A Million to Every Kingdom‘s For Emma, Forever Ago. I say this not to suggest that Howard is but a sponge for the popular musical artists around him; far from it. Rather than churn out records that recapitulate the successful elements of Every Kingdom, Howard has pushed himself further and further, until he found himself in the vast landscape depicted on the cover of Noonday Dream.
On “Nica Libres at Dusk”, “A Boat to an Island on the Wall”, and “Murmurations” he throws out enough hooks and memorable instrumental licks to give body and shape to the airy texture of the record. And, in the end, Howard’s prowess on acoustic instruments merges with the electronic textures to produce a clear sonic capture of the desert in which Howard finds himself on the album cover. But on meandering numbers like “What the Moon Does” or the throwaway interlude “All Down the Mines”, Howard indulges the ambient a bit too much.
As was the case on I Forget Where We Were, Howard strays just far enough from the more straightforward acoustic arrangements of Every Kingdom that the music feels dull and shapeless when it shouldn’t need to be. Dusty deserts give Howard plenty to work with here, but there is a risk of getting stranded out in such parched terrain. For all the times where Noonday Dream gets, well, a little too dreamy, “Nica Libres at Dusk” demonstrates further possibility for Howard’s songwriting. If he’s able to marry his chops with acoustic instruments to his penchant for electronic and ambient music, without letting one take precedence over the other, he’d be on his way to a masterpiece that, at their best, each of his three records thus far has hinted at.