In today’s music scene it’s rare to find breakthrough artists who are so quickly respected and admired as Ben Howard was. His debut album Every Kingdom in 2011 showed tremendous skill and brought back something exciting to the simple acoustic guitar. This earned him two Brit awards (rightly so) for Best male solo act and British breakthrough act – and so the pressure was on to deliver a good second album.
I Forget Where We Were kicks off with ‘Small Things’ and ‘Rivers In Your Mouth’, two tracks which instantly create a very atmospheric and mysterious theme; one that seems to run throughout the rest of the record. Both songs slowly build up in the end into very fetching instrumentals, treating us to that unique guitar style that Ben masters so well. The third track ‘I Forget Where We Were’ was the first single released for the album, however despite liking it on first hearing, it fails to evoke any excitement in the context of the album. There’s been very little change in tempo since the start and lacks a catchy chorus or rhythm anywhere.
The next track ‘In Dreams’ finally gets a little more rhythmic and also gives out a nice sense of journey and adventure. Similar in the style of bands like Fleet Foxes or Mumford & Sons. Half-way through the album, track 5 fully lifts the album’s tone with a very sweet rhythm and warm hearted lyrics. Harmonies from India Bourne (the bands cello and bass player) also feature on the track and makes it work so well as they both emotionally sing “Got a woman at home, she treats me well”.
‘Time Is Dancing’ returns smoothly to the tone of this album, building up in that unrushed manner that all of Ben’s music seems to master. Here, the layered vocals seem more suited to the words they are expressing, as, compared to Every Kingdom, Ben’s voice throughout this record is more effortless and relaxed. Certain songs have the feeling of being recorded long after they were written, with the vocal melancholy mastered in ‘End of the Affair’ creeping into the more lyrically-positive songs as well. ‘End of the Affair’ was the second song to be promoted ahead of the album’s release after the title track, so is familiar. Yet even without the foresight, it would still be one of the standout moments of the record. The detuned acoustic guitar returns with his characteristic John Martyn-influenced style, but with higher reverb and alongside bass so compliments the overall transition to electric. Ben and his band’s compositional skills shine through in this 8 minute track, creating an atmosphere comparable to stadium bands like Foals.
The album moves towards a close with the pretty, rhythmic trance of ‘Conrad’ and ‘All Is Now Harmed’. The latter has recognisable elements from his EPs and debut album, yet surpasses them both structurally and production wise, leaving the album with the notion that Ben Howard’s music has progressed significantly without losing touch of the spark that caused so many listeners to love it in the first place.
It feels like these songs couldn’t be performed busking in the street, or without the assistance of decent amplifiers. They are studio masterpieces, the production and recording laboured over as much as the lyrics – a welcome departure from the over-saturated acoustic market in which lyrics alone were prioritised. The transition into a majority use of electric guitars rather than acoustic turns it away from Every Kingdom in one respect, and perhaps is the reason why the musicianship of I Forget Where We Were feels more coherent. It may take some listeners by surprise, and might even alienate his folk fans, but hopefully most will agree that Ben Howard has managed to retain the influence of his roots while progressing with a beautiful, sophisticated second album.