Review: Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were

This album does not sit well in a playlist with Ed Sheeran, no matter how sure you are that singer/songwriters with guitars and nice voices are the same.

I Forget Where We Were is a gloomy album, appropriately released in autumn when its lonely, reflective sound can be appreciated.

The album feels like an extension of Howard’s last release, 2013’s Burgh Island EP, where Howard experimented with the sounds of his electric guitar and reverb. It builds on what the songwriter learned then, with similar harmonics, tame strumming and percussion that often build to be loud and fast, and an effective use of strings.

The strong feeling of loneliness is a shift in Howard’s style. A listener could once mistake a song dealing with suicide for a positive, upbeat track because of its melody (i.e. 2011’s “Follaton Wood”), but now Howard’s emotions appear a lot more obvious. While “Rivers in Your Mouth” sounds vaguely familiar, it doesn’t aim to hit the same feel-good heights tracks from Howard’s last album, Every Kingdom, did, for example.

A voice steeped in agony becomes apparent from open track “Small Things”, and is noteworthy throughout. Howard yells “Is the world gone mad or is it me?” in a way sounding closer to desperation than his usual, passionate way (like on previous tracks “Bones” and “Depth Over Distance”) and is the defining change in his style.

The album largely uses lyrics for sound rather than meaning’s sake, but some lines suggest where Howard is at mentally. “The anvil and weight upon my back”, “I am not myself today/I am not feeling okay”, “I live alone/I live a lonely life without you/and I may be troubled” are lyrics from just the first few tracks hinting at unease, perhaps with the fame he has attained.

Although a well-produced album with cleverly developed backing vocals and satisfying bass, the LP has its downfalls. The repetitiveness of “She Treats Me Well” is frustrating, while too many songs fade to almost nothing just to start all over again.

The album has its beautiful moments, too. The bridge in “End of the Affair” could be IFWWW’s best sequence, although riffs in “Conrad” and “Time Is Dancing” are a close second. Moments like the short-lived key change in the “Black Flies”-esque song “In Dreams” are quite special, while the delicacy of Howard’s voice in title track is memorable.

Overall, the album makes loneliness seem somewhat appealing, if only for a few listens. Considering the success of Howard’s last album, it is surprising that this attempt has no stand-out radio-friendly songs, although coming from a musician who has suggested he is uncomfortable with fame, perhaps this is no coincidence.

Mark Hogan

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