Track Review: Ben Howard’s “Untitled (live)”

Published: March 13, 2019

“Untitled” wouldn’t just have improved Noonday Dream if it had been recorded for the album, it’s downright essential to its entire tapestry. The song ties together an astonishing amount of this dreamy, impressionistic LP – clarifying “Towing the Line”‘s rookery-as-metaphor, contrasting the closing of “Murmurations” with its celebration of sight, unnervingly foreshadowing the ‘something in the canopy’ in “The Defeat” which makes Ben ruminate on death like the birch tree in “Untitled”. There’s actually something weirdly fitting about the thematic, like, key? to an album this distant and unaccommodating being impossible to find outside of a couple YouTube live vids, which makes you wonder if it was sidelined for giving away too much of the album’s thematic tissue. Then again, this is the dude who never released “Keiko”, so chances are he’s just fucking insane with this ‘dropping his best music’ stuff.

The definitive version of “Untitled” thus far, in this writer’s opinion.

 

Whatever. “Untitled” is a gorgeous piece of work, often played as an intro to “The Defeat” in live shows as above. It’s almost more powerful to read it poetically than it is to hear the words sung out loud. Birch tree lost its branch one day in violent winter / I said it was grieving, you said ‘it don’t feel nothing / I bet you think everything’s in its rightful place – that sentiment is man’s disgrace’. Howard’s lineage of imagistic lyrical masters in the folk scene – Cohen, Dylan, Drake – is more obviously present on “Untitled” than it has ever been, and the stark bluntness from this often elusive songwriter is genuinely startling to hear. Well the rooks in the trees they don’t half bother me’, he bold-faced tells us, immediately noting how they’re ‘clawing at my mind with every given opportunity’. As in much of Howard’s work, the changing of seasons is directly linked to the failing of relationships, in this case moving to spring and ‘a perilous sky, and that terrible nagging sound /  ‘Fuck it’ you said, ‘you should go shoot them down’.

Genius disagrees with me on the quoted lyrics, noting ‘mind’s disgrace’ instead of ‘man’s’. Another case where the song in my head could be completely different from the song in reality.

 

A few sundown listens have taught me to appreciate the nuances and sheer craftsmanship of Noonday Dream, an album which (possibly intentionally) frustrates me as much as it scratches my Ben Howard itch. It’s a beguiling album, one which I think I respect more than I enjoy. And I don’t know if I love or hate that there’s no single moment that cuts me to my soul the way “Untitled” does when Howard’s voice rises, cracked and straining, to sing ‘so hey, that’s me / shooting at a hundred-year old rookery’ like it’s the saddest thing anyone’s ever imagined. The song ends with, you guessed it, another absolute heartbreaker – I’ll go back to working through the gentle hours of the evening / where the weather and the wine and the company treats me easily […] unknowing am I of the wound that took my eye’. He doesn’t sound unknowing, though. Folk pop’s former bright golden child sounds fatigued from the weight of whatever has been on his back, whatever wound stops him seeing the ‘miles and miles’ that afford him such peace in “Murmurations”. Maybe it’s more simple than I make it out to be, and “Untitled” was just too straightforward, too short for such an experimental album. But it feels like something far more precious, more revealing than that, a once-in-a-lifetime soul-cleansing that was too real for Ben to record – or, as BlushfulHippocrene suggested to me, he doesn’t trust his fans with it. I certainly can’t blame him. I can’t resist “Untitled” even as is, scouring this obscure gem’s hidden moments and ideas for clues to an album and a man I don’t quite understand.

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