Ben Howard - Noonday Dream
"Why are we all so miserable?
Well, that's right! Nobody ever comes back."
Yep. You're in for an album riddled with lyrics like that, and it's a good thing. Four years since Ben Howard's I Forget Where We Were went gold in the UK, comes Noonday Dream, plunging deeper into Howard's uncompromising musical pool. Noonday offers a somber 50 minutes with a sonically depressing underbelly, but its depths, melodies, and incredible atmosphere more than make-up for the emotional journey it puts us through. The album is extremely intimate, creating a direct one-to-one connection with its listener and their hearts. Howard has impressively carved out a sound unto his own with a truly beautiful third album.
The gripping opening track "Nica Libres at Dusk" opens with one of countless subtly constructed guitar riffs. Underneath, the first of several glitchy computerized noises seeps out, introducing an element that will be reoccurring throughout the album, adding an interesting new layer to Howard's music making. "Nica Libres at Dusk" nicely represents the music to come. Howard stays low in his vocal register on the track, and for the majority of the album, rarely showcasing his effortless vocal range. Clocking in at six and a half minutes, "Nica Libres at Dusk" is a striking songwriting creation that takes a somewhat odd twist with an outro that sounds like a last minute addition. It works.
I'd love to tell you not to worry and that the whole album isn't somber, but it is. "Towing the Line" follows with a gloriously unique vocal melody and further introspection. Howard reflects, "I know I'm a hard rock to drag around." Howard, like always, is in no rush to make succinct tunes. "Towing the Line" is the shortest on the album at just under four minutes in length and joins "What the Moon Does" as drum-less tracks.
"To care, or not to."
"A Boat to an Island on the Wall" is the signature Howard piece to the album, a masterclass on the slow-burn. Dammit, we even have a guitar solo. Sort've. It's sincerely crafted, and regardless of the somber mood of the album, it never becomes unbearable. Strings are once again used sporadically, offering a perfect texture to an already wonderful atmospheric tone. The guitar becomes distorted for the first (and only) time on the entire record, making its usage that much more impactful. Lyrics and themes are as cryptic as a Ben Howard interview, but it seems the song is about the painful regret of an affair. Whatever the case, it's a heart-wrenchingly pure song.
Noonday Dream trudges along in its thick introspection, but impressively never becomes a chore or a challenging listen. Yes, songs like "The Defeat" and "Murmations" aren't 'get pumped up for a weekend' songs, but they have a certain positivity in the connection we all share with the complexities and delicacies of life.
Howard told The Times out of the UK that “melody spoils poetry, and I’m naturally melodic. I went with a guitar, so ultimately I was flawed beforehand. I set myself up for failure.” Maybe he isn't the next Walt Whitman, but Noonday Dream is dense in its lyrical content and ambitious in its musings on life. While its melodies and accessibility are trickier than his previous albums, its listenability is ultimately a more rewarding and worthwhile one.