Ben Howard’s newest album, Collections From The Whiteout, is certainly a strange record, but it becomes more coherent with each listen.
The English singer-songwriter has come a long way from his acclaimed debut album, Every Kingdom, which was released in 2011. While Howard’s first album featured acoustic guitar-laden tracks and lyrics revolving around love and loss, his latest album, released on Friday, is harder to pin down, which seems to be intentional on his part.
In an interview with radio host and YouTuber Kyle Meredith, Howard described the album’s title, saying, “I just liked [whiteout]. It’s a pretty word and it’s hard to translate. It just felt right for the time … It’s sort of the same for ‘collections,’ really. So, it gave me an excuse to put a load of songs together that I thought maybe didn’t fit together.” And Collections From The Whiteout is just that: hard to translate.
The lyrics are often very obscure, which again seems intentional, but as a result, many lyrics also lack the emotional bite that the songs of Every Kingdom had. Many of the 14 tracks have a meandering and atmospheric feel to them, aided by, as Howard described it to Genius, guitars that were put through a “spaceship of pedal boards.”
“Follies Fixture,” a single and the lead track from Collections, features a dreamy synth, mellow acoustic guitar, and backing harmonies that set the overall mood for the rest of the album. This track also exemplifies Howard’s uncanny ability to string together lyrics that create a nostalgic feeling without carrying any specific meaning. This is especially seen in the final lines of the outro, as Howard sings, “The sun beat through the glass to grace our meeting / Looking out on a Belleville crowd / Every sight of you I know is worth the keeping.” These abstract lyrics really put the onus on the listener to give them meaning.
“Unfurling” provides ample opportunity for Howard’s fans to interpret their own message in the song. The track starts by saying, “Remember / When the apex moved / And the body shook / I remember you / Unfurling / True,” which doesn’t amount to much meaning for listeners. The rest of the song’s lyrics also fail to convey any specific story, and the vague lyrics that follow are accompanied by a muddy-sounding acoustic guitar.
“Metaphysical Cantations,” “Make Arrangements,” and “The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell” also feature rather obscure lyrics and musical components that diverge from Howard’s primary use of acoustics on Collections From The Whiteout.
“Metaphysical Cantations” features an echoey bass and hazy synths that somehow feel exactly like the title implies they should. “Make Arrangements,” which alludes to death and a funeral, is driven by synths that give the track an atmospheric feeling, something Howard strives for in many songs on Collections.
“The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell” is based on the story of a man with no flying experience who stole and then crashed a plane. On this track, the bass, synths, and piano all combine to sound jumbled and discordant, as the instruments strum and echo on different beats to create an unusual rhythmic blend.
“Rookery” is the true standout from Howard’s latest album, and it’s no coincidence that it also has the most in common with his earlier music—although it does feel out of place on Collections. This song features only an effortlessly picked acoustic guitar and Howard’s wistful vocals. The abstract lyrics continue on this song, and it’s anyone’s guess why Howard would write a song about a rookery—which is a breeding colony of birds. Despite this bizarre imagery, “Rookery” captures the melancholy sound that made Every Kingdom such a fantastic album, and it certainly leaves fans of Howard’s older music craving more throwback Howard songs.
Howard’s Collections From The Whiteout seems to be the cacophonous byproduct of an artist who has already had so much success that he can now completely diverge from the trademark sound that made him popular. Many of the tracks spotlight lyrics that don’t seem to have any particular meaning, and sonically, they have an atmospheric, yet bland texture to them.
Despite every lyrical and instrumental choice on this album, Howard’s effort ultimately falls flat when compared to his other projects. With that being said, if listeners can devote enough time to parse through this dense album, they might be able to give some meaning to Howard’s latest effort and appreciate it on more than just a surface level.
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