“Has the world gone mad/ Or is it me?” is a question posed by British troubadour Ben Howard on “Small Things”, the deceptively bleak opening track to his second album, I Forget Where We Were. It sets a rhetorical tone for a collection of 10 reflective songs that contemplate the pain of love, the restless spirit, and the disquieting sense of falling short. Along the way, Howard externalizes a kind of inner madness while his imagery remains suitably poetic. (The title track stands out for mixing domestic metaphors with the change of season.) It’s not simply the exorcism that Howard puts himself through, but rather the feeling that he has come out of the process stronger.
The new record arrives three years after the release of Howard’s debut, Every Kingdom, a time during which his career has taken off, fired by two BRIT awards and frequent sold-out tours at home and abroad. It owes much more to the starker aspect of that debut — as on highlight “Black Flies” — than to the audibly commercial side. It feels like he has stopped and taken stock, gone through some difficult times, especially when there wasn’t just the next gig to look forward to, and then let the emotion of these experiences permeate through his songs. He is not shy to extend his musical ideas, with the majestic “End of the Affair” being the prime example. Running just short of eight minutes, the song’s raging, harmonic-driven coda acts as a catharsis to the lyrical pain of the verses.
Howard’s an intense live performer often surrounded by a small nucleus of friends and bandmates. As such, I Forget Where We Were pairs him alongside his fellow bandmates Chris Bond and India Bourne. Bond even handled the album’s production and fashioned an intimacy and mood that instinctively knits the songs together. Howard never loses his sense of melody, and this album thrives in his sheer musicality, be it agile fingerpicking, hammering striking harmonics, or delighting in delayed electric guitar. It’s hardly an easy ride, but it’s eventually a satisfying one.
Essential Tracks: “End of the Affair”, “Small Things”, and “I Forget Where We Were”