Ben Howard : Is It? Review
Ben Howard has consistently pushed the boundaries of folk and indie music, veering towards the experimental, but with his fifth studio album, Is It?, he propels himself into a new, intriguing realm altogether. Recorded for ten days at Le Manoir de Léon Studios in the serene beauty of Southern France, the album emerges as a lush soundscape, a journey through Howard’s artistic resilience and creative expansion, especially given the life-altering health crisis he endured while creating it.
The album opener, “Couldn’t Make It Up,” is a pleasant surprise. Produced by Bullion, it instantly plunges the listener into Howard’s altered reality, with Island beats evoking an overwhelming sense of the sublime. The chorus will linger in the mind’s ear for hours. It’s a solid start to the ten-song album, setting the tone for the following journey. The music explores the artist’s harrowing experience of two mini-strokes, elegantly capturing the fragility and absurdity of life, with the richness of Howard’s layered sound accompanying us throughout.
“Walking Backwards,” the second track, skillfully incorporates ambient vocal samples that float in and out like light whispers, embodying Howard’s own disjointed, transitory moments of confusion. Floating of a steady hi-hat and drum pattern, Howard’s soft voice sings a melody that lightly unfolds an intriguing and fluid song form. The piece develops expansive musical backdrops and accentuates the contrast between Howard’s light vocals and the constant activity of the instruments. This sonic dichotomy reaches an interesting point in “Richmond Avenue,” a song that puts Howard’s vocals to the forefront and swirls with backward samples and a female voice doubling Howard’s. The music straddles ambient and pop with a mesmerizing hypnotic pulse.
Howard’s production on the song “Days Of Lantana,” “Moonraker,” and “Little Plant” evolve into lyric narratives, each revealing its own charm and emotional depth that might be missed at first but will gently reveal their secrets on repeated listens. Amid the album’s ambient soundscapes, Howard’s voice remains the guiding light, resilient and mesmerizing, injecting life into the layers of sonic experimentation with a light and airy vocal tone.
Is It? shows Howard navigating a twilight place between reality and something intangible, creating an unsettling yet hypnotically immersive recording. His progression from folk’s comfort zone to the more unpredictable territories of electronic experimentation is commendable. Where his music was once firmly rooted in acoustic melodies, here he blurs lines, seamlessly integrating electronic elements and breathing new life into his sound.
Ultimately, Is It? is an album not designed for casual listening. It rewards time, patience, and repeated listening. It asks listeners to get lost in its textures and unusual detours, much like Howard, who turned a profoundly personal health scare into a creative musical journey. Through the fog of glitchy beats, hazy synths, and elusive hooks, Is It? explores Howard’s emotional and health turmoil – a triumph of artistic perseverance and a testament to the beauty of musical unpredictability. Even in the face of adversity, Howard delivers a body of work that challenges and bewitches, leaving us to take a journey of growth through the hypnotic pathways of Is It?
June 16, 2023
Universal-Island Records Ltd.