Courtesy of Republic Records

March 24, 2021

TEST SPIN | Ben Howard’s ‘Collections from the Whiteout’

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On March 26th, award-winning British singer-songwriter Ben Howard will release his fourth studio album, Collections From the Whiteout. A far cry from the beautiful and peaceful acoustic anthems of his debut album, Collections From the Whiteout sees Howard traveling further along the trajectory he’s been on for his previous two albums, making more experimental folk-rock. For this record, Howard worked alongside producer Aaron Dessner of The National, who also produced Taylor Swift’s albums Folklore and Evermore, to create a soundscape that is new to Howard, but still highlights his strengths as a songwriter and singer.

Howard puts his writing skills to good work here, drawing upon a diverse body of references to craft his songs. He focuses on retelling odd stories from history and mixes them with his own experiences, blurring the lines between past and present. The single, “Crowhurst’s Meme,” exemplifies this lyrical complexity. In this song, Howard draws from the story of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor who entered an around-the-world sailing contest and reported false locations through his radio to give the appearance that he was succeeding, when in reality his ship was broken and sinking. After all of the other sailors quit the race and it appeared that he would win, Crowhurst committed suicide to avoid the ruin to his reputation that public knowledge of his cheating would have generated. “Crowhurst’s Meme” contains one of my favorite moments of the album: near the end of the song, the instruments strip away to a single acoustic guitar, and Howard sings, “I’m aware of the allegory” repeatedly, making for a satisfying fourth-wall break. After telling the story of another man, Howard recognizes that this story intrigues him because it is allegorical to his own experiences. Howard puts his own philosophical spin on the story, blurring the lines between Crowhurst’s experience and his philosophical musings. 

Other songs based on similar stories are “Sorry Kid,” about the story of Anna Sorokin, a Russian woman who pretended to be a socialite in the US and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bar tabs, and “The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell,” about an airport employee who stole and flew a plane by himself, crashing it onto an island. These mysterious stories, combined with the album’s distorted and hypnotic sound, give it an otherworldly quality and make it an auditory museum of the weird. While the blend of personal and historical influences that comprise the album’s lyrical content are certainly interesting, they’re difficult to understand for most who haven’t heard the niche tales of the songs’ subjects. In my opinion, that’s half of the fun of a conceptual album like this one. I live to stalk albums on genius and learn about every subtle reference included in a body of lyrics, while trying to discern my own interpretations of the rich imagery.

Howard’s intriguing songwriting is supported by a blend of fuzzy, distorted guitars and thumping percussion that clashes against his somber, rich vocals and classical piano work, altogether creating an experimental and electronic, yet still folky, sound. This hard-to-describe, genreless sound resembles that of Bon Iver’s later albums. In fact, Howard cites Justin Vernon of Bon Iver’s collaboration project with Dessner, PEOPLE Collective, as the initial inspiration for the album, and the duo’s influence shines through very clearly. At times, all of the different instruments create dissonance both with each other and with Howard’s voice, but the clashing is artful and intentional. Given the more experimental nature of the songs, this album isn’t for everyone. It is also best experienced from start to finish, immersing yourself in the sonic world that Howard and Dessner have constructed.

As mentioned before, these songs fit together best when listened to as a whole album, but I do have a few favorites that stand out on their own and I’ll be coming back to separately:

“What a Day,” the other single released prior to the album, is one of the more peaceful tracks, with a calming aura and a beautiful melody. This is the kind of song you would listen to while contemplating life on a long car ride. Lyrically, the song includes the imagery of nature that Howard is well known for, as well as some musings about death. They made a really cool music video to accompany the song too!

“Far Out” was released early as a B-side, and is a super chill rock song that is already stuck in my head. This one has some of my favorite lyrical images of the album, such as “a boy behind the trees, picking psilocybin.” The lyrics deal more explicitly with political themes of anti-violence and the struggle to make meaning in the world. 

“Rookery” sounds nothing like the rest of the album: a short, sweet finger-picked acoustic song that I immediately fell in love with when I heard it. 

Overall, Collections From the Whiteout is an album that I respect more than I like — it clearly represents an artist pushing themselves to their boundaries and putting an immense amount of thought into crafting their perfect album, but a casual music listener like me doesn’t necessarily need an album to be high art. It’s impressive, but maybe not the most enjoyable. If you’re into albums like that though, give it a listen! 

Lauren Douglass is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at led94@cornell.edu.