English singer-songwriter Ben Howard first came to our attention in 2011 with his double platinum album Every Kingdom, which spawned the Top 10 hit Only Love. In 2014 Howard followed up that album with I Forget Where We Were, which failed to live up to the commercial success of its predecessor despite giving him his first UK number one album. Four years on from that album and Howard is back with his third studio album Noonday Dream.
Howard has undergone a pretty radical progression since his first album. That album seemed built for commercial success and TV sync opportunities so it was quite a surprise when Howard took a left turn with I Forget Where We Were, which was a little more free and organic in terms of its sound. With Noonday Dream, Howard has taken another step away from the mainstream with a sound that’s more Sufjan Stevens than the sound he broke through with back in 2011.
Opening with Nica Libres at Dusk, Howard sets out his intention from the outset. This isn’t a collection of radio-ready songs, instead it’s more like a dreamy meditation that explores how music can make you feel without the manipulation of a commercial edge. Howard’s voice is layered over urgent acoustic guitar riffs and swirling atmospheric sounds. It’s a low-key start to the album and to be honest you’ll know by the end of the song if this record is for you or not.
It’s clear that Howard has chosen atmosphere above all else on Noonday Dream. The seven-minute A Boat to an Island on the Wall takes almost a minute and a half until it gets going as strange sounds pulse out of the speaker. Someone in the Doorway adds a beat but it feels a bit disjointed from Howard’s vocal delivery. One of the most interesting moments on the record comes on The Defeat, which feels like it wants to burst into an ethereal dance moment but it never really gets there.
Elsewhere on the record There’s Your Man pushes the music to the fore almost drowning out Howard’s vocals, Towing the Line uses vocal effects to make Howard sound distant and Murmurations is an unsettling clash of hushed vocals and echoey sounds.
One of the issues I have with Noonday Dream is that it all starts to blend into one. Each song segues into the next and at times I was unaware the track had even changed. That unfortunately makes it perfect for background music but it’s not the most engaging body of work to sit and listen to intently, not for me any way.
Noonday Dream will no doubt delight those who like their music a little alternative. There’s much to impress here but I wasn’t gasping to play the album through again once it finished. For me this will be an occasional listen and I don’t see that I’ll be revisiting it too frequently. If you need a record to put on and chill out to, this would be a great choice but it left me feeling oddly cold.
Track listing: 1. Nica Libres at Dusk 2. Towing the Line 3. A Boat to an Island on the Wall 4. What the Moon Does 5. Someone in the Doorway 6. All Down the Mines (interlude) 7. The Defeat 8. A Boat to an Island, Pt 2 / Agatha’s Song 9. There’s Your Man 10. Murmurations Record label: Island Release date: 1st June 2018