Is It? - Ben Howard: Album Review
Defying doctors’ orders to take it easy after two minor strokes in March 2022, Ben Howard instead poured his experience and pain into 'Is It?' a 42-minute Valium-induced album for the ages.
The singer’s 5th studio album captures all the weird and conflicted emotions of this time, hidden behind a sedating vail. Feeling light like a plume, and experiencing time standing still and going backwards at the same time, it’s an album that touches upon multiple sensations. Throughout the listen I can't help but feel I'm being drawn closer and closer into his inner, most creative space. Instead of demanding your attention, “Is It?” invites you to sit down and hear what it has to say. It is absurd, postmodern and captivating, and undoubtably ushers in a stunning new era for this prolific artist.
We open on a blissful note with Couldn’t Make it Up, and amongst all the songs, my most noteworthy of the pick. The song feels like a sun breeze, a fresh Pina Colada at the beach - it’s light and offers a melodic optimism, despite its lyrical introspection.
"What's with the face
With the half mast frown?
If I give up
Do I give up now?"
Following on from a crisp opening, we move on to Walking Backwards, a track that opens with a snippet of another song played backwards before a 360° shift in rhythm landing in the actual song and I’m left in awe and confusion; it truly does feels like walking backwards into the song. The track itself sounds smooth, yet choppy and Howard’s dreamy vocals fits perfectly to it. Some astrological references are made later in Moonraker as we are slowly re-introduced to the more experimental side of Howard: “I found it impossible not to dwell on the absurdity of it, that with one tiny clot, one can lose all faculties. It really ate into the writing of the record”, he comments.
Total Eclipse marks the point of the album’s mental collapse, a point where we get to question everything. Amidst Howard's murmurs of "I was... Hmmm... I was thinking...'" accompanied by an eerily reversed melody, we experience a moment of complete uncertainty. The recurring theme of music in reverse adds an unsettling and mesmerising quality to the track. Spirit takes on a robotic yet profound tone, showcasing simplicity intertwined with deep despair. The captivating fusion of electric, chopped-off violin sounds creates a hypnotic sonic atmosphere, while Howard's raw honesty shines through. Finally, the album concludes with Little Plant, a wholesome and uplifting song featuring a pulsating beat reminiscent of a heartbeat. Ending on a positive note feels remarkably satisfying.
‘Is It?’ is a record that delivers to the highest of standards, thoughtful and experimental, whilst still acting as a comforter on tense and onerous days. Having made a name for himself for blurring genre lines, Howard's medical battles have resulted in something interesting, honest, and different, and a welcome fresh sound in an otherwise radio good-feeling landscape. We're more excited than ever to see what the Richmond-born singer has to give us next.
'Is It?' is available now on all major streaming platforms, and available to buy in Vinyl, CD and Casette formats here.
Words by Andrea Naess
Folklore Sessions returns on the 18th July at The Folklore Rooms for the monthly showcase. With music from AK Patterson, Tamasene and Cali Santo.