The Hypnotic Obfuscations of Ben Howard

On his new album, “Is It?,” words prove elusive even as they soar.


Ben Howard’s PR team would have us believe that he undergoes a comprehensive rebirth every time a new album rolls around. Fortunately, however, Howard is not in a perpetual state of infancy (he was born in England in 1987). Rather, his albums, though sonically unpredictable, trace a clear artistic trajectory — from a young folk musician drawing on the work of his predecessors to a distinctive artist who continually pushes the bounds of musical texture.

His new album, Is It?, was recorded only two months after he experienced two mini-strokes, in March 2022. “I wrote these songs to see if my faculties could actually maintain the act of songwriting,” said Howard in a 2023 interview with the Guardian. “There was a fear I wouldn’t be able to write songs any more. I was struggling with memory in the fallout of the [strokes], struggling with words, and I was quite tired. But the songs came, and when they did, it was clear that this experience was preoccupying me constantly.”

In the songs on Is It?, Howard drifts unexpectedly into the world of summery keys, sampled beats, and synths, a far cry from his singer-songwriter beginnings. Still, the album is unmistakably Howard, featuring his trademark percussive guitar playing, “lost in the sauce” vocals, and poetic lyrics: “Purple flowers, azure June / You and me walking, to vers la lune.” The coalescence of these elements results in a hypnotic ramble into the opacities of music, language, and everything in between. And it is in this commitment to ambiguity that his talent — and the strength of the album — lies. 


The album’s final song, “Little Plant,” evokes a poetic tumult with the words “They were watching sunsets, you were straining for a vision.”


Howard’s music is often characterized by the use of delay, effectively allowing a musical line to widen or thicken within itself, granting it the space and freedom to reveal its own complexities. His varied use of this technique can be heard across Is It?, from the stuttered guitar patterns of “Spirit” to the lilting instrumentals of “Richmond Avenue.” The songs on the album illuminate the interplay between instrument, rhythm, silence, and timbre, as they reverberate with and against both themselves and their counterparts. “I like the clunky mistakes, the percussion, the rhythms that it brings out, which you don’t play,” Howard told Guitar World, in 2021.

Throughout his work, Howard has leveraged these so-called “clunky mistakes” to develop seemingly infinite sonic landscapes, playing architect to both space and motion. On Is It?’s second track, “Walking Backwards,” he shifts between adjacent keys, bringing the listener through a series of changes in sonic atmosphere and color. Skimming across a kinetic maze of delayed beats, chords, and sampled sounds, the song generates the sensation of being spun perpetually forward (or backward, but that’s all a matter of perspective). “Life in the Time” features a bouncing guitar pattern threaded through drifting vocal and violin lines, enabling Howard to cultivate a curious musical impression of optimistic doubt.

One integral, albeit controversial, aspect of Howard’s music is the embedding of lyrics within the aural terrain, almost to the point of incomprehensibility. He first plunged into the realm of muddled vocals in his 2018 self-produced album, Noonday Dream, an off-putting move for listeners partial to the indie folk accessibility of Every Kingdom (2011) and I Forget Where We Were (2014). In Howard’s subsequent 2021 album, Collections from the Whiteout, producer Aaron Dessner (of Taylor Swift fame) attempted to filter Howard’s murky textures. “Going in with Aaron … it was starting from the point of like stripping things back,” Howard recalled to Guitar World. This “stripping things back,” however, resulted in a more two-dimensional product that reduced Howard’s resonant landscapes to maps — though the idea of intricate sound was maintained, it became flattened in translation.

With Is It?, produced by Bullion (Nathan Jenkins), Howard has found his way back to true sonic interplay. To the disappointment of some, this means a return to lyrics partly shrouded within the soundscape. “Hope it’s like your early stuff, not the mumbling,” a fan commented under an Instagram post announcing the release of “Couldn’t Make It Up,” Is It?’s first single. The song’s lyrics are, for better or for worse, relatively unintelligible, even upon an attentive third (or 33rd) listen. “Could not,” in one verse, is almost indistinguishable from “Goodnight,” in the next. And this is no mistake. At the end of the song, Howard sings, tongue in cheek, “Mumbling the words like the first time around / What’s it to me anyhow?” (A lyric sheet is included with the album.)

The decision to sometimes obscure his lyrics is, on the surface, a peculiar one for someone who won an Ivor Novello award for his lyrical abilities, and who told the Sunday Times in 2018 that he once took a break from music to pursue writing: “I decided that, instead of a musician, I would become a poet.” And the literary influence across Howard’s work is clear. His 2014 song “Conrad” draws explicitly from Joseph Conrad’s short story The Tale. In a 2021 concert interlude, he featured Joan Didion’s voice reading from her book Blue Nights; in one of his new songs, “Interim of Sense,” Howard draws on Yeats’s seminal poem Sailing to Byzantium. And he modifies Shakespeare in the opening line of Noonday Dream’s “Boat to an Island on the Wall”: “To care or not to care.”


Throughout the brief pause he tends an atmosphere of dangling uncertainty, tuning his guitar up and then down a whole step while a singular note bends. The effect is something akin to the distant cry of a hawk, and no amount of language could convey the same sense of floating through open air, or, as he calls it, “Hanging out there on the line.”


Is It? is rife with the Bard’s invocations of the moon, with investigations of love, apathy, and the natural world, with meditations on self and human frailty and the essence of time. When Howard’s lyrics are foregrounded, they display an unmistakable linguistic talent. The album’s final song, “Little Plant,” evokes a poetic tumult with the words “They were watching sunsets, you were straining for a vision.” In the understated “Days of Lantana,” Howard recollects the simmering complexities of powerful feeling — from deep affection to loss to nostalgia — and somehow skirts the pitfalls of cliche. “The world only turns twice / once for the laughter / once for the memories after / all the rest is just kicking through the weather and the fines,” he intones.

Though perhaps a poet at his core, Howard is ultimately a musician. His sonic dexterity brings ineffable shades to already subtle sentiment. In the simultaneously grounded and soaring track “Moonraker,” Howard sings, “Dancer of twine / How do you make it look so easy babe? / Hanging out there on the line,” before breaking into an interlude mid-song. Throughout the brief pause, he tends an atmosphere of dangling uncertainty, tuning his guitar up and then down a whole step while a singular note bends. The effect is something akin to the distant cry of a hawk, and no amount of language could convey the same sense of floating through open air, or, as he calls it, “Hanging out there on the line.”

In these songs, musical and lyrical significance are inextricably woven, their relationship symbiotic. By both muddling and weaving his lyrics throughout the musical terrain, Howard uses the sonic quality of words to subvert the presumed necessity of articulated meaning. The fact that language is inherently aural allows him to transform words from vehicles of communication into musical tools. The song “Total Eclipse” makes explicit this technique, entwining stutters and random instrumental lines. Similarly, in the latter half of “Richmond Avenue,” Howard’s obscured words meld with the timbre of backing Uilleann bagpipes. When rendered indistinct, Howard’s lyrics become a seamless, enigmatic, and essential part of the album’s aural and emotional topography.

So what Is It?, this unusual coalescence of music and language? The resulting album is a delphic sonic experience, one that envelops its listener in the vast question posed by its title. A striking portrait of human depth and ambiguity, Is It? leaves us changed.   ❖

Ruthie Kornblatt-Stier hails from the woods of western Massachusetts and works in New York City, covering topics ranging from women’s issues to the climate crisis to entrepreneurs. Her work has appeared in Worth magazine, Techonomy, and Propagule.


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