Ben Howard review – surfing troubadour high on a new wave

Brixton Academy, London
The Devon singer-songwriter has made a stylistic leap forward – and taken his adoring audience with him

Something has happened to Ben Howard. Three years ago, he was a twentynothing surfer-songwriter fresh out of Devon. He had tousled good looks, a furrowed brow and a tenor vibrato delivery that meandered from mannered to chewy, indicating emotion suppressed at considerable personal cost.

His songs mulled girl trouble with perhaps a little more sorrowful bleakness than those of his contemporaries. One of Howard’s more lyrically arresting offerings, The Fear, gnashed at apathy and how “we all live our lives in the confines of fear” even as it rollicked along, festival-ready. His occasional finger-picking style suggested links to the old ways; his otherwise contemporary take on acoustic folk-pop didn’t require too much extraneous kit, just drummer Chris Bond, who has produced both Howard’s albums, and multi-instrumentalist childhood friend India Bourne on cello, bass and keys, both present tonight.

“I will become what I deserve,” went The Fear. To his credit, when Howard sang it, it didn’t sound like a smug bid for fame, but rather the product of soul-searching in the cold, unfathomable Atlantic of human relations. But almost by stealth (in reality: years of gigging), Howard nipped into the mainstream and made off with two Brits, a Mercury nomination and 1m sales of his debut album, Every Kingdom. Tweeting teenage girls now figure in his fanbase. Observers don’t usually credit teenage girls with a predilection for existential angst, even when it’s delivered mellifluously into the gap created by Mumford & Sons; yet again, it seems, young women have surprised everyone.

Howard’s second album, I Forget Where We Were, finally came out in October this year. To say Howard has moved along somewhat would be an understatement. Tonight, on the first of two sold-out gigs at London’s Brixton Academy, it takes six people and a lot of granular video to recreate its textures. He doesn’t play much from the first album: specifically, not songs like Only Love and Keep Your Head Up, his most popular. Instead, Howard starts by playing the first two songs of the new album one after the other, the bent guitar notes of Small Things warping even further live. The song’s long coda finds Howard swivelling on his stool to face his bandmates at the back and getting lost in the ensuing soundscape. This is not what confessional troubadours do, normally.

Howard performs End of the Affair.

He ends the set with the last two songs of the new album, and encores with another new album track, End of the Affair, which – as it was on Later… with Jools Holland, only more so – is nearly eight minutes of swelling from modest beginnings to thundering electronics.

In indie money, Howard has executed the sort of leap in palette and production that Bon Iver made from For Emma, Forever Ago to the self-titled Bon Iver: everything is bigger and a lot stranger. It’s unlikely Howard will be working with Kanye West any time soon, but he’s not merely an acoustic guitar guy any more. He has not only gone electric, but is almost giving post-Brian Eno Coldplay a run for their money. There is a lot of crackle, a lot of oscillation.

Mostly, this is a pleasant shock. Four songs in, an I Forget track, Time Is Dancing, builds gently on the kind of aortal beats that embryos are nurtured to. Somewhere underneath the atmospherics is a pretty song about going dancing. “I do believe we’re only passing through,” Howard notes gently; far away, a hydraulics factory begins production.

A lot of serious musicianship is displayed. When someone has to tune up unexpectedly, Howard makes small talk about how guitars may not be played in 100 years’ time. “Look at cellos!” he exclaims. He stops himself just before it becomes a rant about “real” instruments – of which there are many here, alongside all the effects. As well and Bond and Bourne there are now not one but two more electric guitarists, and Bond’s brother Andrew on a huge bank of keys. Howard changes his guitar virtually every song; on Gracious, a token sop from the first album, Howard gets up and faces the double bass with his acoustic.

There is some danger here of a high seriousness taking hold, of an attempt to grow folk-pop into something that journeys into the void with instruments as well as words. For now, Howard and his band have stopped just short of that leap. More interestingly still, this audience seems to have willingly gone along with them.


Kitty Empire

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