Ben Howard – Every Kingdom
Today sees the re-release of “Keep Your Head Up”, Ben Howard’s soaring ballad and the third single from his debut album “Every Kingdom”, which is due for release this time next week. It’s an album that we’ve had the pleasure of cherishing for some time now, the fact it’s still as entrancing to listen to today as it was a month ago speaks volumes for its depth, texture and craftsmanship. It also seemed that now was an appropriate time to share our thoughts on it, although the prospect of conveying 4 weeks of appreciation in just a few paragraphs is a rather daunting one.
Two minutes into the LP and you’ve already learnt a great deal about Ben Howard. To open with a minute and a half of instrumental is indicative of confidence in, and a desire to remain true to, his roots. “Old Pine” displays a subtle intricacy, Howard’s fastidiously plucked guitar strings and tender vocals, the gentle cello and warm voice of India Bourne and the echoing resonance of Chris Bond’s drums, all meticulously interwoven to truly conjure images of a musky forest, and more pertinently the timelessness and experiences it embodies.
The warm poetry of “Old Pine” is succeeded by the haunting lyricism of “Diamonds”, “All I am is the bones you made for me”. The first verse has a misty eeriness to it, before an unexpectedly benign chorus replaces longing with comfort, the choral chants that close only helping to further accentuate this homely, protected feeling. Not even the combative challenge, “Where you been hiding lately?” of “The Wolves” can shake loose the feeling of quiet safety that Ben’s guitar confers, it’s much like watching a storm from the luxury of your own home. Despite what’s going on out there, the tiding highs and lows of Howard’s vocals, you know it’s going to be okay, as the soothing breakdown of the final minutes reminds you. “Everything” is a sagely tale, told by a wizened elder, fire crackling in the background as the guitar creaks. Whilst a youngster sits enamoured by the entrancing minimalism and vocal texture, slowly absorbing the wisdom being imparted as to the inevitability of change, and on a rather more sombre note, mortality, “Every king, knows it to be true, that every kingdom must come to end”.
In “Only Love” Howard let’s his defences down, gone is the meticulous composure of the opening salvo, replaced instead by a refreshing rawness and intensity. There’s a far denser, more powerful soundscape, vocals come gusting through, sudden impassioned cries sitting atop a crescendo of sound, before the clouds clear and calmness returns with the closing refrain. The powerful message of “The Fear” is at odds with its uplifting musicality, to the most perceptive of ears there’s an uneasy undercurrent but when it’s overlayed with caressed guitar and beguilingly harmonic vocal it’s easily missed. Until the closing stages that is, with the foreboding chant of “I will become what I deserve”, prompting thoughts as to the ominous inflexibility of fate, finally providing the canvas upon which Ben’s strained and impassioned warning can be heeded. Where “The Fear” was foreboding and judgemental “Keep Your Head Up” is forgiving and judicious. It’s by far the most instantly affecting piece on the record, thanks principally to its hurried tempo and dynamic hook, and yet that pop appeal is found without sacrificing anything in terms of emotion, this is as moving, empowering and real as the rest.
Burning so brightly up until this point, brimming with zeal and fortitude, “Every Kingdom” is in danger of fizzling out, with the closing tracks perhaps paling in comparison with those that came before them. Those were my initial thoughts, but over time they’ve been revised. “Black Flies” just comes as a shock, its dark melancholy at such juxtaposition with the uplifting reassurance that has preceded it. Laden with pensive insights, “The sky is no man’s land”, “No man is an island” and a menacingly heavy breakdown, it’s disconcerting as opposed to disarming, but, for variety’s sake, that should be applauded. “Gracious” is a return to warm reassurance and soothing story telling yet, antithetically, unsettling lyricism, ghost imagery and the questioning longing of loss are all prominent, lending an elegiac quality to the track. The rustling opening of “Promises” is at first frustrating, until that moment when the underlying melody bubbles from beneath, sneaking up without your realisation, woven so delicately as it is. The mellow trance continues, slowly building in both complexity and feel, as the ascending cello and backing vocals join Howard and his guitar to reach an atmospheric peak, before the record, most intentionally, dies down to the single pluck of a string to finish.
This is an exceptional album. Defined by the manner in which a guitar comes to life in Ben Howard’s hands, allowing him to imbue his music with such depth and personality whilst his voice, as unique as it is difficult to do justice to, provides all the character that one could possibly desire. Listen to (and watch) “Keep Your Head Up” below, and be sure to purchase “Every Kingdom” as soon as you can.