How much can you gather from an album cover? The latest record from English singer-songwriter Forgot Where We Were tells you a lot before you’ve even hit play on what could likely be one of the most engaging releases of 2014. Picking it up you’re faced by a shrouded Howard, a man caught between light and dark, and opening it up you’re presented with an album also bathed in shadow and distorted. It’s a contrast of sorts to the deep blue Nevermind of Every Kingdom, and is similar in sorts to Howard’s The Burgh Island EP which was adorned by a black and white expanse. I Forgot Where We Were, like that EP, strays away from the optimistic infection of his debut LP. There are no larger than life singles on here, very little in the vein of Keep Your Head Up, and instead the introspection of the likes of Black Flies and Burgh Island is dominant, making for a stark and sparse record which I preferred greatly to Howard’s earlier material – and it’s worth mentioning that I adore Every Kingdom.
I Forget Where We Were feels like a step forwards, a much more mature release exploring Howard’s own psyche and capturing it in music which seems to branch out from a dark centre. Echoing, almost barren soundscapes creep, dense with atmosphere, lit by plucked electric guitars and Howard’s vocals, which are still irresistibly delivered, folky and passionate to match the confessional nature of his music. I Forget Where We Were is a much deeper, honest listen; Howard has learnt how to lay himself bare, often delivering lines similar in theme to ‘I am not myself today; I am not feeling okay’, which features on the relatively upbeat Rivers In Your Mouth, as merry as the record really gets following In Dreams.
Overall, it’s a change for the better, and it’s tough to envision 2014 Howard as the same artist who released Every Kingdom three years ago, but that just serves as a testament to the kind of artist he is – one of immense talent unafraid to follow their own path. I Forgot Where We Were is very bold, a striking portrait of a troubled singer-songwriter, and it sounds triumphant in its emotional turmoil. Warm chills ripple across stormy seas on Conrad, on which Howard sings ‘oh I loved you with the good and the careless of me but it all goes back’. He’s eloquent as he evokes empathy, and even though the track displays a vulnerability it sounds entirely confident and composed, think Bon Iver’s debut record For Emma, Forever Ago. There’s certainly a similar sort of isolation implied here. Ben Howard has distanced himself, we hear him cocooned within his music, echoing alongside spiralling guitars and gentle thuds of percussion. I Forget Where We Were is a night sky, and losing yourself in it is blissfully easy. It’s encompassing, a dwarfing record even with its reserved nature. It echoes and shifts throughout, spellbinding in nature, and listening through a decent set of headphones I had goosebumps for the entirety, partly because drummer / producer Chris Bond does an immaculate job in every regard. The style of the record is intoxicating; the twangs of the guitars; the thick silence which hangs heavy in the background. It makes for an eerie but beautiful release, one which is harrowing and soothing, and as whole it’s brilliant. Listening to Howard’s second LP I found myself moved, and it’s partly due mainly to the subtle, tangible nature of the release. At times it’s bleak and bare, illuminated occasionally, and these mellow, haunting moments make tracks like End Of The Affair rousing and affecting. There’s very little to them instrumentally, but they’re deliciously rich, immersive as a guitar perforates a black exterior and Howard croons.
Like with the album art, there’s a strong visual element to I Forget Where We Were, and the songs are often aided by their length, with only three songs of the ten featured dropping below five minutes. Songs take on a cinematic expansive feel, grand in scale. Longest track End Of The Affair is given plenty of time to bloom, a warm, wintry chill kindled into a roaring fire when the song switches style around the midpoint, picking up significantly after a dainty, flickering, first few minutes which seem to span a relationships lifetime, gorgeously evocative. It’s very special, and as Howard shouts ‘What the Hell?’ during the second act his music has rarely sounded better, taking on a quality almost transcendent of folk music, a beacon. You’ll hear very few songs, within or outside of the genre, which communicate themselves this well, and to say that I Forget Where We Were is an experience would be an understatement
To be sure, I Forget Where We Were is a much slower record than Howard’s norm, but it has its faster selections, and these tracks tend to return to his acoustic roots. Shortest track In Dreams strays into Laura Marling I Speak Because I Can territory, carrying a dark, brooding edge alongside dancing guitars and piercing violins, whilst She Treats Me Well showcases Howard’s deft skill with an acoustic guitar, and it features the records most optimistic lyrics in a less, more buoyant in contrast to the sinking ship of Conrad (‘I’m still standing on my own two feet’). It’s the slower tracks where I Forget Where We Were really shines, or simmers, but there are shades of Howard’s debut, gleams of sunshine on a record meant for dusk, as is the case on the lively Time Is Dancing.
I Forget Where We Were is Ben Howard’s best album to date, a musical change but a welcome one. It’s bleak and beautiful, the calm in the centre of the storm which makes up your day, a reassuring, relaxing listen with real gravity to it. It’s tough to see it winning any BRIT Awards, and it’s tough to see it garnering lots of radio play when Zane Lowe isn’t around, but it’s a less commercial record and a much more commendable one. After the success of Every Kingdom nobody would’ve forgiven Howard for releasing more of the same, and credit has to be given to him for evolving because I Forget Where We Were is one of the best albums you’ll have the pleasure of hearing in 2014, a feast for the ears, as well as the soul. ‘Has the world gone mad, or is it me?’ Howard asks a few minutes into the record, and if he is losing it then his insanity is absolute genius.
Rating – 9.5/10
Listen to: In Dreams / End Of The Affair / Conrad