People were greeted with a barren desert landscape inhabited by grey buildings, solar plates and windmills—the full area 51. The setting is Goonhilly Earth Station: the location for Ben Howard’s Thursday evening live stream celebrating the release of his new record, Collections From the Whiteout.
Howard stood with his guitar in frosty air for the show, surrounded by a galaxy of pedalboards and synthesizers, a physical hint at a new style. Electro met folk in a first encounter on “The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell,” which faded in with echoes of intergalactic messages and faint conversation as a sustained, atmospheric synth beat took over. The opening track showcased a common thread of the entire record: a gentle blending of acoustic guitars, piano, synthesizers and electronic texture; lyrically, Howard switched gears and re-wrote the narrative of airplane thief Richard Russell, looking through a retrospective lens. The track recoiled mid-way, Howard’s guitar providing an atmospheric, breathy element to the ending of a new beginning.
Between slideshow images of orange trees and abandoned planes, the crunchy, distorted opening beat of “Sage That She Was Burning” glided in over light, faded keyboards. Backing vocalist Cathy Lucas added depth to the performance, with layered vocals over howling guitar notes; the song’s imagery conveyed a feeling of tortured dissonance.
“What A Day” was more upbeat, while still lofty and thoughtful. Airy acoustic guitar counteracts a Dessner-signature computerized drum beat. Howard’s vocals form a gentle melody for the distant love song, with tender, honest lyrics; Howard sings, “What a day to go around/ Heavy in the sound of breaking mirrors,” before diving into a static-filled guitar outro with a gritty twist.
Barefoot and reeling, Howard grooved casually to the funky, agitated beat of “Crowhurst’s Meme.” “Unfurling” is another odd standout, unlike anything in Howard’s archive; static buzzed around each guitar chord Howard played. Guitar through moog pedals gave “Finders Keepers” its rightful, unsettling appeal. Once again, Howard details a story—one of a man following a suitcase down a river, only to find a dead body within the vessel—and gazes through it introspectively. “Why’s it always me?/ Finding things I should never have seen,” Howard sang, utilizing a classic Pandora’s Box metaphor to convey a complex emotional pattern.
Melancholy of Howard’s initial work, “Rookery” saw the artist stripped down to bare bones, acoustic guitar, and traditional folk vocals. Simple guitar strumming left room for lyrical imagery that compared killing birds to killing love; Howard sang in a clear, forlorn tone, “Shooting at a hundred-year-old rookery/ Oh, look at me/ The definition of futility.”
“Metaphysical Cantations” was catchy without trying hard to be, with a lightly buoyant electronic beat. “I’m working on turning me around,” Howard admitted, detailing the feeling of longing for someone out of reach. Joyful, tapping synth beats formed “Make Arrangements,” along with a smooth bass riff that brought in a jazz element to the multi-layered track. Lucas’ voice filled in the spaces of Howard’s vocals. The final track of the show is the opener on the album, “Follies Fixture,” and it was filled with speedy, arpeggiated synths.
An even balance coexisted between electronic sounds and acoustic guitar, topping off the progression Howard worked toward throughout the record. The final track brought the journey full circle, leaving people with Howard’s most present style. “Every sight of you I know is worth the keeping,” Howard sang repetitively until his voice faded into a faint, atmospheric hum.
The entire project felt like an artifact of Howard’s past dusted off and refurbished enough to make it new without losing its rustic qualities. “Buzzard,” a short, twangy interlude is the part of the artifact left untouched, while the tale of Richard Russell brought out a polished, unforeseen side of the artist’s creative genius. Ben Howard could have existed eternally alone with his guitar, but Collections From the Whiteout signifies a different direction, straying away from Howard’s usual slow-burning, fireside-folk style to venture into uncharted territory.