Ben Howard's debut "Every Kingdom" turned into a radio friendly monster that stormed the charts and jumped out of he racks of today's greatest music shifters - the supermarkets. As a result it very unfairly put Howard into the category of "just another" Brit Award Winning artist, whose name seemed to forever be linked to Ed Sheeran and the notorious label the "new boring". Whilst there would undoubtedly be a huge market for an "Every Kingdom Mark 2" the clues to this new album came in November 2012. At that point Howard released "The Burgh Island EP" a dark and menacing affair that felt like it was penned as an antidote to the summery acoustic vibes of his debut; indeed it is that short record that sets out the stall for this new album "I Forget Where We Were".
As an album it is an unquestionably serious affair from its plaintive black and white cover, its heavy reverb electric guitar and the length of many of the tracks that exceed the 5-minute mark. It commences with "Small Things" a dark blues opening shot that sets the tone for what follows with a haunting guitar that leads to a fierce closing segment. The glorious "Rivers in your mouth" is more accessible and has is not unlike some of Thom Yorke's songwriting. It all slows down for the title track although the powerful bridge injects energy in the song and has Howard exclaiming "Oh, hey, I wasn't listening/I was stung by all of us, the blind leading out the bored/And as per usual/You were skipping and laughing eyes at the bedroom door". The track which best resembles the vibe of the first album is the rolling acoustics of the ghostly "In Dreams" its great but untypical. The big highlight here is the near eight minute "End of the Affair". Howard himself admits that he was "racked with indecision for the whole the winter" about the tone and length of such songs. It builds slowly and deliberately to the around the 5 minute mark and then unfolds like a long guitar coda underpinned by that chiming rhythmic delay effect so beloved of the Edge. Others are less successful and on first listens there is a bit of a mid album lull with the standard "She treats me well" being ok and "Time is dancing" slow to reveal its pleasures (although on repeated listens it actually turns out to be one of the strongest tracks) The album is rounded of with the powerful closer "All is now harmed" where again you detect Radiohead inflections.
Ben Howard has studiously avoided the instant satisfaction approach of his debut and put out a record that is challenging and which may divide his core base. In the same way that Damien Rice deconstructed his mega successful approach on "O" to the much harder and edgier "9", Howard has taken a path on "I Forget Where We Were" which should see the "new boring" tag laid to rest. Indeed Howard himself admits that it was the National and Talk Talk which provided much inspiration for this approach. Thus he has recorded a sophomore album without a slump and signalled that he is a real force to be reckoned with.
Review by Red on Black