It’s easy to forget that Ben Howard released an album last year. It came and went, with no hit singles and an understated sound almost unrecognisable compared to the cheery beach-folk of his debut. The nature of this quiet and underdiscussed release is what makes the decision to perform these new songs almost exclusively so interesting, and polarising. They’re not what Ben is known for, and in Brixton, clearly not what the majority of the audience wanted.
From this show it is clear that Ben has disavowed completely the music that made him famous. On his newest album the sunny, earnest melodies and sing-along choruses of Every Kingdom make way for obtuse, poetic lyrics, unassuming singing, and gradual builds in intensity that impact only if you managed to sufficiently focus your attention on the initial quiet, which at times is no small feat. With this as his new sound, it is no wonder that he did not perform a single one of the cheerful campfire songs that made him famous; their carefree and direct sound is the antithesis of what he now seems to value.
Considering the sales and fast-forgotten nature of the newest album, it’s not surprising that the majority of people at the gig were less than impressed by the focus on this material, and omission of the songs they doubtless bought tickets to hear. Shouts of “play the good songs!”, and audience noise that at times rivalled in volume the music coming from the stage, demonstrated the lack of patience for the new material, which undeniably requires concerted effort to appreciate, and was perhaps not suited to such a large venue.
There is, however, something incredibly bold about disavowing your old music entirely. It takes bravery to defy the wishes of your audience, to stick to your guns in the belief that your old, easy-listening sound is overly simplistic and unrealistically cheery. It’s as if on the first album he crafted upbeat and blissful songs that were almost too good to be true, a sense of artificiality and idealism to their sound, and now he has found more honest art in realism and subtlety.
Instead of an evening playing the hits and giving the crowd what they wanted, Ben and his band created a quiet atmosphere, and one that required work and patience to appreciate. With this show comes an interesting question; what do the audience deserve, having purchased a ticket? Does their money purchase the right to hear exactly what they want to hear? Or does the artist have ultimate control, owing nothing to their audience, and should be able to perform what they believe is most important, most true to themselves? It is abundantly clear which side of this argument Ben is on, although a vast majority of the audience clearly disagreed.
It was admittedly difficult to focus on at times, but every song was beautiful in its own quiet way, with a few moments of true, goosebump-inducing potency. And when coupled with the undeniable honesty and artistic integrity of choosing newfound subtly over singalongs, it was a gig like few others; modest, sombre, and with just enough patience. Captivating.