A year or two ago, an announcement that Ben Howard was working with producer Aaron Dessner might have seemed a little more obvious.
The Devon singer-songwriter has been growing ever more experimental since the surfshack folk of his debut album went double platinum. Of course he would be keen on the spectral guitar textures of Dessner’s main band, The National, and Dessner’s work with other acoustic types who have got weirder, such as Lisa Hannigan and Bon Iver. As Howard tells it, it was hearing the song Santa Agnes, a hypnotic and supremely uncommercial 17-minute instrumental by Dessner and his twin brother Bryce, that inspired him to make contact.
Today, however, Dessner is significantly better known as the main co-writer and producer of America’s biggest-selling album of 2020: Taylor Swift’s Folklore. There he was on stage at the Grammys less than a fortnight ago, making his acceptance speech before Swift’s as they picked up the biggest prize of the night, for Album of the Year. In contrast, Howard couldn’t get out of the spotlight fast enough when he was a surprise double winner at the 2013 Brit Awards: “I won’t keep ya. Cheers,” he said, as though taking reluctant custody of a Yodel delivery for a neighbour.
Some of his subsequent music has had a problem with murkiness, lacking the ability to hold attention as it smears ambient passages all over. On this fourth album, his stepping to one side really works. He has accepted the involvement of Dessner’s impeccable address book, and incorporated contributions from other artists including jazz drummer Yussef Dayes, Phoebe Bridgers, This is the Kit and James Krivchenia of Big Thief.
Lyrically, personal material is hard to detect but his sad/sweet voice is well suited to telling strange stories. Finders Keepers is about a man who found a suitcase in the Thames containing a dead body, relayed over jittery scrapes of guitar effects. Rookery, an ancient-sounding folk song free of studio trickery, speaks of the futility of shooting at birds’ nests to keep them quiet. The tense beats and digital distortion of Sage that She Was Burning, coupled with faintly sketched words sung in that fragile way, plants him in Radiohead territory.
There’s much to unpack, and loads going on in the corners when you creep closer to the speakers. There’s also a lot of beauty, and on What a Day, a genuinely catchy tune too. With a bit of help, Howard has finally found a balance that could please everyone.