I should probably start by saying that I am a huge Ben Howard fan. His Debut, Every Kingdom, is still a go to for me when an acoustic album is needed and I Forget Where We Were, the darker and more experimental of the albums, is one of my favourite albums to have on in the background. However, I would also say that the Burgh Island EP is better than both and is well worth a listen if you have a spare twenty minutes. As you can probably tell I may be going into this a tad biased. If His back catalogue proves anything it is that Howard never does what you expect him to, he tends to disappear after a release and then re-emerge with something very different. Noonday Dream, as Howard’s most experimental and eclectic album to date, continues this trend.
It is immediately obvious that Noonday Dream is a continuation of the Moody and dark Howard of I Forget Where We Were. The Opener, Nica Libres at Dusk begins with electronic noises and its opening lines are delivered in a harsh robotic style before the song breaks into a more familiar expansive soundscape and the accompanying video features Howard wandering aimlessly through a bleak desert. However, Noonday Dream is at its darkest in The Defeat. The Track features angry heavy drums and swirling feedback behind pessimistic and angry lyrics that are all but spat out- “Even the greatest, the very, very greatest/ Gave up, tapped out /Told all you fuckers to lie down/ Yet, still you found cathedrals of deceit” and “Tell anyone you wouldn’t buy a round for your best friend.” This darkness is probably a result of Howards negative experience of touring, something that the Song What the Moon Does may be centred around. Howard talks about how mundane things, such as feeding the dog and walking a mile, make him smile, how “real life Flashed at the window” and also repeatedly asks to be “made sane”. It seems that Howard is remembering the negativity of touring and his subsequent period of inactivity that was needed to regain his ‘sanity’.
However, any interpretation of Noonday Dream is pure speculation as the album is all but impenetrable, both lyrically and sonically, for much of its fifty-minute length. Someone at the Window is a prime example of this, its lyrics could mean pretty much anything evening becoming paradoxical in places- “Into the light of a bad dream/ Into the laughter of a war”- and sonically it never breaks out into an easily digestible melody or rhythm. NME complain that the album is “hard work” before predictably starting on about the length of songs, for example A Boat To An Island On The Wall that clocks in at over seven minutes. This completely missed the point- namely that Howard’s appeal is precisely that his music is difficult to follow. Noonday Dream is made all the more compelling by its rich, densely packed and ever-changing nature. At its best something truly epic emerges out the fog. There’s Your Man is the best example of this- It begins in an ethereal fugue of disassociated echoes that are only grounded when the drum beat kicks in, however, as more elements are added it coalesces together and a melody emerges. Different elements such as the guitar, singing and bass are brought forwards before fading into the background again.
A final element that defines Noonday Dream is its experimental nature. Low-key electronic music, from artists such as John Talabot, are one of the less predictable influences. The use of percussion as a driving force, repeating instrumentation and the use of electronic noises are all significant here. In other places Howards experiments with heavy distortion and feedback more common in some alternative rock. Elsewhere, A Boat To An Island, Pt. 2/ Agatha’s Song would not be out of place on a shoegaze album or in the slower moments of Mogwai’s discography. All this experimentation, which admittedly is not always successful, gives Noonday Dream an eclectic feel that holds your attention through multiple listens whilst avoiding the trap of making the album seem disjointed.
Ultimately Noonday Dream is a dark, eclectic, dense and at times impenetrable album. It is difficult to digest on first listen but grows on you if you as you listen. Yes, it is “hard work” and so is not for those who seek instant gratification in their music, but it is also immensely rewarding for those willing to dig a little deeper.