Ben Howard's latest album "I Forget Where We Were" experiments with rich textures and sonic space while staying true to his lyrics' emotions.
If anyone showed up at the Civic Theatre last night looking for uplifting, singalong folkpop from an affable, surfer-turned-songwriter, that person was looking for the wrong Ben Howard. Gone are his hoodies, anthemic pop songs, and vague lyrics with positivity so concentrated it tended towards the banal. Now, he’s more interested in texture and use of sonic space, and his audience is down for the ride--especially, his male fans.
For a musician whose quiet demeanor and handsome, laidback looks seem like an obvious sell for a female crowd, Howard attracted a strong male audience. A group of guys danced on one of the balconies, bouncing up and down and miming the lyrics to each other while punching the air. They gave each other high-fives at the end of Howard's more upbeat songs. A guy near the front yelled "You go, Ben!" after Howard played "End of the Affair," a dour song which ends with the furious, heartbreaking lyrics "This is just it / Go to him / What the hell, love?" And though there were plenty of proclamations of love from female audience members, more than a few were from guys yelling, "I love you, Ben!"
— Lane Primeaux (@lane_primeaux) January 18, 2015
— Lyle Theriot (@LyleCCCFit) January 18, 2015
It's not often that you hear such vocal declarations of bromance, but Howard makes his male crowd comfortable with it because he's sensitive without being sentimental. He writes about love without mentioning sexual politics, and loneliness without asking for pity. Howard doesn't take a particularly strong stance on anything, and he doesn't need to. He doesn't pander outright to his female audience or Top 40 radio interests (none of the songs here are straightforward, upbeat, or pithy enough), and he barely made eye contact with the crowd. Whenever he threatened to enter tortured-singer-songwriter territory, he would smile at a joke or shrug amiably about a wrong chord.
It's not that Howard purposefully orients himself towards an audience of any particular gender. He manages to bypass that conversation in the wake of his meteoric commercial success. Howard's reticence came off as an honest attempt to step out of the way so his music can speak for itself.
He set the tone early with the uneasy, dark reverb of album-opener "Small Things". He wasn't there just for smiles or to coast on his debut album Every Kingdom's Mercury Prize win - Howard was out to prove that he's a creative, ambitious songwriter, all serious business in a black button-down and drenched in dour floodlights. He ended "Small Things" swiveled around on a stool, his back facing the crowd and hunched over a guitar.
— Pics from NewOrleans (@instaNewOrleans) January 18, 2015
As elsewhere on this second album I Forget Where We Were, Howard played with more interesting song structures and stretched his emotional palate. Though he seems to be distancing himself from the laidback surfer vibe he was associated with before, it's hard not to draw parallels between his songs' textures and water. On "End of the Affar," his pick-and-go guitar style recalls a band of light ping-ponging through shifting waves, and when his songs descend into a maddening spiral it feels like he's drowning. Likewise, the audience surfaces for air when his songs meditate for a moment, clearing out sonic space except for a guitar string's clear exhale. Sometimes the sound came out too muddled or harsh, but perhaps that was due to difficulties handling the dense reverb inside the Civic. Regardless, Howard is convincing even at his extremes. He knows how to push his audience just far enough.
Howard has a knack for constructing abstract narratives rooted in intimate settings. In a song ambitiously titled "Time is Dancing," he fits in the sweet sentiment of ephemeral existence right next to the lines "Your father pulled your teeth out of your face." He then swivels and insists, "Hold it in, now let's go dancing." It's easy to commit to his sentiments of heartbreak or quiet joy because he conveys emotion without pretense. His most absurd or grandiose statements settle back into something tangible.
Walking out, a guy next to me turned to his friend and said, "Oh man, this isn't real life!" I know he meant it as slang, but still, I had to disagree. In Ben Howard's music, it all feels real. He aims for higher and lower emotional abstraction than you would expect, but he acts like he believes what he says onstage. Even under a poised stage light, it all feels true.