Ben Howard: “Every Kingdom”
Ben Howard’s debut album ‘Every Kingdom’ is out on Monday, but will the West Country surfer’s album make a big splash, or sink like a stone?
It’s usually important to disorientate your readers when it comes to reviews. You indicate that you think one thing, and then turn it around to the opposite. It keeps people guessing if only for a few lines. Sadly for this excellent album the best I can come up with is, “I can’t decide whether the timing of the release of this record is inch perfect or a mile wide of the mark.” It doesn’t exactly lead you a merry dance does it? That’s the problem a reviewer faces when they come up against something actually brilliant: Ben Howard’s debut long player sits easily in my top five, if not three, albums for the year, and whilst it hasn’t been hyped as much as Ed Sheeran’s “+” it utterly deserves to be welcomed with comparable acclaim.
Mr Sheeran is a bit of a force of nature and seems to stylistically shape shift without diminishing quality, but there is a danger of young musicians thinking that this is a template to inherit and follow, potentially resulting in aspiring talents forcing themselves down the “jack of all trades, master of none” route; Sheeran is simply a rarity for us to cherish. Fortunately Ben Howard will never be condemned to stylistic toe dipping and as a peer of Ed Sheeran we can see that singer songwriters have an alternative and more stable benchmark in Howard who is totally self aware in this respect; he clearly knows exactly who he is and what he is doing, which means we can hold on to this too.
The album reflects a confidence that only comes from playing lots of gigs, knowing the songs, and being self-assured of your talent, and that is a very different thing from arrogance. There is a genuine humility in the heart of this album that suggests that the stories about this young musician trying to organise gigs around surfing are not only likely to be true, but that Ben Howard is a grounded person who isn’t chasing fame, he’s just making music with a character that shines like sunlight breaking through grey dawn clouds on the Cornish coast. Okay, clearly Ben Howard would have conveyed that more eloquently, but you probably get the idea of where this album sends your head, and your heart.
By now if you haven’t heard “The Wolves” or “Keep Your Head Up” then you simply aren’t cool enough to read this review. Okay, maybe you are, but pay attention next time someone like Ben Howard is releasing records. There is food for all kinds of moods on this long player, and I’ve no doubt that you could equally enjoy “Every Kingdom” with a broken or blossoming heart. “Only Love” is possibly my least favourite number on the record, but that is probably more telling of me than an accurate appraisal of quality.
“Promise”, my word, Ben Howard tapped into something on the album’s concluding track. Musicians, even experienced and massively talented ones, often completely forget artistic measure, restraint, pulling the punch that’s classier not to throw. I swear if I could bottle artistic measure I would because it is THE most common ‘meh’ moment when you’re listening to someone who is daring to be great, but forgets that they don’t need to show off. Ben Howard, much like his current touring support the wonderful Lucy Rose (and indeed her associates the simply outstanding Bombay Bicycle Club), does not get drawn into grandstanding just because he can sing and play; as a result the music and musician are more trustworthy because of it.
“Every Kingdom” is an accomplished record for a debut, and it paradoxically cultivates the intimacy of a beach side jam with the scope of human universals: the tortures, torments and triumphs of souls coming to terms with everything from love, their faith, to the elements around them, and it doesn’t ever step beyond the physical presence of dying embers of coastal firesides. Ben Howard either has an old soul, or he has learnt more about life in his relatively short time on the planet than most of us could hope to in generations. That sort of emotional maturity and the ability to interrogate it kind of makes me want to take up surfing… Seriously, if surfing has opened the doors for Ben Howard, then who wouldn’t want a slice of “Black Flies”, “Diamonds” or “Old Pine” handed to them by the ocean?
Simultaneously haunting and comforting, Ben Howard’s “Every Kingdom” feels familiar from the first listen, and by that I’m not talking about it being echoic of some other musician’s stylings (and if I were feeling lazy I could gesture vaguely towards early Simon and Garfunkel, Damien Rice or anyone else thematically folky with a guitar) but it feels like these songs have been heard in the whispers in the coastal wind. These songs feel permanent, like they could be shuffling through the dusty corridors of your memory or bumping into you in the street tomorrow; that is no small achievement for someone of an age where many others are thinking about student loans or Friday night mistakes.
If I’m pulling stars out of the air (which is what Howard somehow manages to do with this album) then I’m looking at a 9 out of 10, and that’s because I’m too damn stubborn to accept the additions of things like percussion on songs previously heard on his EP and singles, which felt finished and perfect already. Maybe if there is a lesson for Ben Howard to learn is that once you have hit the mark recognise you have nailed it and move on. The temptations of revision must be difficult to fight for young musicians but reinventing a wonderfully spinning wheel must be avoided; if we look back to that other fantastic breakthrough that we discussed earlier, Ed Sheeran, we can see that he too has fallen foul of having another crack at something he has gotten right and “+” was weaker than it should have been as a result.
So Ben Howard has created a very special record here and I hope that you all go and buy it quickly, because the sooner this album is in your life the sooner it can be part of your world. It would have been the soundtrack to your summer if the label had released it then, but as it is I guess we know that we will be looked after as the night’s close in with autumn and there’ll be fireside songs for winter. Ben Howard’s “Every Kingdom” is an album to soundtrack your memories of all the yesterdays, today and all the tomorrows we are going to get, and we are all the soulfully richer for having it.