written by: Shosh
Already a chart topper in the U.K., LP “Every Kingdom” marks folk singer Ben Howard’s debut in the U.S. Where lyrics and musicianship reign supreme, 24-year-old Howard sets himself apart due to his gravelly yet pleasant timbre, soulful lyrics and quite a bit of impressive guitar picking. With help from a few backing musicians by way of added strings and harmonies, this lush album is full of accessible, hearty folk tunes.
The album opens with “Old Pines,” a Bon Iver-esque piece with airy “ahs” and a relaxed instrumental opening. The lyrics don’t begin until over a minute in with Howard’s heavily doubled, almost choral, vocals. Sweet harmonies flutter above Howard’s husky melodic line as he sings about nature and the world around him, sonically mirroring his beautiful imagery. This song takes many different turns from its wandering start, to its ethereal, melodic middle to a quick ushered beat at the end – so much variety and it’s only the first song!
The opening of second track “Diamonds” sounds like Fleetwood Mac tune “Big Love,” (more from “The Dance” album as opposed to “Tango in the Night”) with similarities in the melody of the quick guitar picking and reminiscent effects on Howard’s voice. “Diamonds” has a great build and wonderfully poetic lyrics like “all I am is the bones you made for me.” Howard howls on the following breakup song “Wolves.” This song has a quick beat to mark Howard’s sadness and impatience as he “lost faith in the arms of love.” While much of this album focuses on Howard’s voice and guitar, the vocal harmonies and cello accompaniment add a great depth to this song.
Some of the more light-hearted numbers include “Only Love” and “Keep Your Head Up.” “Only Love” is upbeat and familiar. It’s an optimistic chant for any occasion. “Keep Your Head Up” is an extremely empowering and uplifting anthem. With complementary backing vocals chanting the catchy “keep your head up/ keep your heart strong” refrain, this song is perfect for a rotten day. You can’t help but feel grateful and inspired as you nod along to the beat and sing along as the chorus rushes to a booming crescendo.
As much as “Keep Your Head Up” will lift you up, gloomy follower “Black Flies” will bring you right back down. This dark number, heavy with somber guitar and thick vocals, builds slowly and culminates with Howard’s sighing “oohs,” creating a gorgeously tragic song of heartbreak. This introspective track is a highlight on the album and demonstrates the girth and depth of Howard’s capabilities.
While this debut album is a strong start for Howard, a few problems still stand out. Many of the tracks are a bit too long. With all the songs at least four minutes and many closer to six minutes, the end of the tunes can feel meandering and overly drawn out, causing listeners to ask “is this song over yet?” Also, while a few of the catchier numbers will grab listeners immediately, most of the tracks will be favored after several listens. As most the U.S. audience will be listening to Howard for the first time, this album may have benefited from a few punchier songs to really engage new fans.