Album Review: Ben Howard – Collections From The Whiteout

The title of the new release from Ben Howard doesn’t give many clues as to the vibe of the record. Collections from the Whiteout sounds very unspecific, however, upon closer inspection it is a very clever title indeed. The record is comprised of 14 tracks (plus 2 remixes), which is quite a long album for this day and age.

Having heard and loved Ben Howard’s previous works, one could only hope the new material would live up to its predecessors. The first single unveiled, titled ‘What a Day’, revealed a slightly more upbeat sound. The 8-bit snare gives a nice continuous movement to the track with a hint of nostalgia…

“Shadow nearing, Course there’s knowing, where to put the right words here in, where does all the time go?”

With lockdown still upon us, these lyrics are easily applicable to most people’s situation. An easy listening track, this song doesn’t really represent the forthcoming sound of the album. Perhaps it was chosen as it was the most commercially viable track to release first.

Delving deeper, each song has a very intriguing story of its own, the topics of which were chosen from news stories scanned or scrolled past. For example, ‘Crowhurst’s Meme’ tells the tale of the death of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst. Similarly, the song ‘Finders Keepers’ is about a dismembered body found in a suitcase, floating along the river Thames. The song boasts quite a cheery melody in stark contrast to the morbid theme. This could be compared to the state of the world. The constant bombardment of macabre news being broadly washed over by a sense of national ignorance and a numbness to contemporary horrors.

The production on this album is excellent. Aaron Dessner (The National, Sharon Van Etten, Taylor Swift) has managed to create mixes that are quite dense but never feel like it. All embellishments in the guitar and key lines are occupying just the right amount of space in the stereo field and frequency spectrum. It’s as loud as you’d expect for a modern record without ever being fatiguing or over compressed. There is excellent space in the mix, the drum production is crystal clear and the overall sound is warm and soft, without stepping on the frequencies of the bass at all.

The album is a collection of observations, made in a time of great turmoil. On closer inspection, many conclusions could be drawn about this album. Howard has spoken about several extreme cases of tragedy; disturbing events being revisited and written about in a period of public unrest. Such events, like most news stories have been inflated by the media and tainted by political absurdity and infighting. Divisive articles are used every day to shape the public’s perspective on certain issues and that’s the possible metaphorical meaning of ‘whiteout.’ Everything is tinged and blemished by the pandemic and the overall response to it.

This analysis however, is only one person’s take on the meaning of this marvellous compilation. Perhaps the search for meaning is futile and Collections from the Whiteout is a fine example of a human reaction to certain events, that are not meant to be deciphered at all or read into. Only taken how it is – as a very cleverly produced collaboration. Mashed together truths and ideas of likeminded individuals and the meaning of it all is simply a message to react, in the most creative way possible to life, and then leave it to the observers to decipher their own interpretation.

The new album from Ben Howard is nothing short of brilliant. Given the world situation, it would have been completely acceptable (and even expected) of any solo artist to retreat into their own personal space and create on their own. Instead, Howard sought to break from the confines of his comfort zone and seek collaboration and connection, resulting in this fascinating compilation of songs that although feature many other artist’s influences, still sounds intrinsically unique to him.

Shannon Pearl