Ben Howard Music Ltd. / Island · June 1, 2018
The prized British musician’s third full-length release is a marked departure from his earlier ventures, leap-frogging from the folksy Every Kingdom (2011) and the melancholic I Forget Where We Were (2014) to a grander, more experimental style. Howard utilizes soundscapes throughout Noonday Dream, creating a diverse tapestry that moves naturally; the tracks melt and flow together without sacrificing their individuality. A creative and multi-talented musician who was a recipient of the prestigious Brit Awards in 2013, Howard has shifted his sound to become bolder and broader, leaning into instrumental breaks and diverse chord progressions without sacrificing his poetic lyricism. Noonday Dream serves as an ode to nature’s unpredictability and vastness, with Howard continuing to draw from his experiences in the Cornish countryside.
One of Howard’s greatest talents is his impressive ability to move between lyric-heavy tracks, where poetry is crucial in conveying the tone of the piece, and tracks that exist in a space of few words, relying on the instrumentals and composition to carry the emotional message. Historically, Howard has drawn from his childhood influences of wordsmiths like Joni Mitchell and Simon & Garfunkel to build his narrative. Howard continues to use lyrics to deliver his message on Noonday Dream, but also makes an effort to show rather than tell, communicating through instrumentals rather than vocals. In tracks like ‘What the Moon Does,’ he invokes Swedish-Argentinian singer-songwriter José González, with looping, dreamy instrumentals backing soft, phlegmatic vocals. In others, he plays around with Sigur Ròs-esque soundscapes, producing the instrumental crescendo in ‘A Boat to An Island on the Wall’ that slowly burns and builds for four minutes.
Noonday Dream is awash in tonal color, reflecting a summer sky during a thunderstorm: inky purples, bruised blues, and slate greys (‘Someone In the Doorway,’ ‘Murmurations’) break at times into a brilliant sepia (‘Nica Libres at Dusk,’ ‘There’s Your Man’). The instrumentals are rarely at a standstill, and they alternately simmer and soar; on certain tracks, the rollicking combinations of electric guitar, drums, synths and strings threaten to swallow Howard’s voice. In other tracks, however, they are docile and subdued, yielding to Howard’s songbird croon. The use of instrumental breaks on Noonday Dream is a relatively new feature for Howard, and one that may prove divisive for his fans. Patience is certainly a virtue when listening to this album, and listeners unfamiliar or unwilling to lose themselves to the more experimental aspects may write Noonday Dream off as being too wandering, too laborious. I would argue, however, that it is the aural journey that makes this album so intriguing. We should all give into the “road less traveled” at some point in our lives, and Ben Howard is here to help us make that a reality.