In his latest essay, writer James Shotwell obsesses over Ben Howard and his fixation on the minutia of life’s most important moments.
An artist is doing something special when the only way to describe their sound is by detailing how it makes you feel. Musicians that sound like other musicians are a dime a dozen, but those who can tap into something original in their approach, yet universal in their message, are remarkable. They exist in this rarefied air that reminds us of the limitless possibilities of creativity. Even when they miss, these artists reinforce the idea that it’s always better to win and lose on terms we set.
Ben Howard makes music that mirrors the sensation of trying to hold on tight to memories that are already slipping through your fingers. He offers these beautifully detailed yet concise reflections on moments already long gone that are still very much alive in his heart. You never know where the stories will lead, but you know that they will end just as all things must. Howard chooses not to dwell on the endings — he doesn’t even try to make them stay. The beauty of his music is that he’s holding onto these ideas and reflections just enough to convey them to the listener so that they might live, albeit briefly, in their minds as well.
“I Forget Where We Were,” the title track off of Ben Howard’s 2014 sophomore album, is perhaps the best entry point for those unfamiliar with his music. Singing softly over an acoustic guitar, Howard’s deceivingly simple approach to storytelling outlines the mundane moments in a relationship that will linger in each lover’s mind long after the flame they share is extinguished. Listeners are not introduced to the couple, nor are they given the ending. We are only allowed to live with them between the beginning and the end, where anything is possible, yet very little seems to happen. We’re wading through the waters of life alongside two people trying to be present, and therein lies the beauty of the song.
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But this idea of exploring the middle part of all things is where Howard shines the brightest. Many storytellers are so obsessed with giving us the perfect origin story or the nailbiting climax that many seem to overlook everything in the in-between. What Howard understands that so many do not is that the middle part is everything. All of the stuff that makes us who we are and dictates how we feel and how we live and how we act happens in the middle of the story. You can be born anywhere, and you can die at any time. The only thing that we have some level of control over is what happens in the middle of our story.
Recently, I found myself wandering through the woods in Central Tennessee. For as much as people promote cities like Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and even Gatlinburg, Tennessee’s true beauty hides in the center of the state. There are no major cities to speak of, but there is an abundance of nature untouched by the modern world. Whatever trails exist in this area result from everyone who came before you do their best not to fall and get hurt. There are no strip malls, very few highways, and virtually no light pollution. You can look up at the night sky and see the vast expanse of the universe. It is a place that exists to humble you, and that’s what it did for me.
As I was walking through the forest one day, the thought of just how small my impact was on my surroundings overcame me. The trees enveloping me and the rocks under my feet had been there long before I arrived, and they will more than likely remain long after my bones turn to dust. The forest doesn’t care about my presence because I am not a threat to its existence. I am just one of the countless souls that will pass through it and move on and never look back, but on that day, at that moment, I was one with nature in a way that would never happen again. It was something I could not replicate even if I tried.
In that second, when the thought of how special an experience I was having, my brain began to obsess over its ending. Thoughts flooded my mind about the drive ahead of me and how many emails I was probably missing because I wasn’t looking at some screen. That then led me to open my phone to capture my surroundings, which of course, I felt compelled to share on social media, and before long, I was doing the same thing I would be doing in my living room. The earth’s glory faded into a background dulled by a digital screen offering false promises of recognition and admiration.
What purpose did sharing a photo or video serve? Was some part of me so desperate to be rewarded for reconnecting with mother earth that I had to know if one of the hundreds of people who follow me that I don’t know in real life thought it was cool I was doing that very thing at that exact point in time? God, I hope not.
I think we often make the mistake of believing that a single person or event defines everything about who we are and what we are capable of becoming. We believe that we will never fall in love again or that we will never feel as happy as we did one day long ago. We allow ourselves to think that everything that could blow our minds has already happened and that all that remains is the meaningless repetition of living in a society. We will get up, work, then sleep over and over again. The only thing left to do that is of any importance is to die, which again leaves us fixating on endings.
One of the only truths that makes sense to me is that the middle part is the hardest. Endings and beginnings are unique by nature, but the middle part is up to us. We have to actively participate in our lives, and that can be a stressful proposition. Even if we don’t take action to make things happen, we have to have the self-awareness to exist solely in the present for as long as humanly possible. We have to resist the urge to rush things for no other reason than to see the finale play out. We must accept that we don’t know when or how endings will happen and make peace with that lack of control.
On Howard’s latest album, Collections From The Whiteout, the UK singer-songwriter offers yet another whimsical bounty of dreamlike music that meditates on the minutia that lingers when the more significant events in life begin to fade. “What A Day,” the album’s lead single, summarizes perhaps the biggest question of life when Howard asks, “Where does all the time go?” He has no answer to offer, but the song’s energy and the record’s hazy nature tell us he also isn’t concerned with finding one.
But I have a theory, and while it is by no means an original thought, I do feel that fully embracing its truth is a personal journey we each embark upon during our brief time in human form. We spend so much of our lives obsessing over beginnings and endings that the only things that stick with us or the small details that bring us back to the present. Those details are unique to each of us, even if the experiences are similar.
I don’t remember the day I moved into my college dorm, but I do remember the tears in my mother’s eyes as my parents said goodbye and drove back to an empty home.
The vision of my grandmother’s funeral is a blur, but I can still feel the weight of her casket.
The incident that incited the argument that later led to my divorce escapes me, but I can still hear my ex expressing with a heavy sigh that they could no longer continue living the life we’d built.
Both good and bad events are where one chapter of our lives ends, and another begins. They are bookmarks that exist not to help us return but to remind us of all that has occurred so that we do not miss out on what comes next. Ben Howard shares his bookmarks with all of us so that we can look back just long enough to be reminded of all the things that truly make us who we are. Listeners should not obsess over things that we can no longer grasp. He’s encouraging us to embrace the present with every ounce of strength that we have within us. To take in the minutia of our daily lives so that we may take stock of the forces pushing and pulling on our spirit. To recognize the bookmarks when and where they happen.
I used to believe that music was a force for comfort, but the older I get, the more I think that undersells the power it has to impress upon us the finite nature of all things. Collections From The Whiteout, like all Ben Howard’s music, is asking us to press forward. We may never create another memory like the ones we already cherish. Still, there is an endless amount of adventures, victories, losses, tragedies, heartache, love, friendship, and opportunities waiting for those who shake free of the obsessions that keep us from living our lives to the fullest.
I don’t know where you are in your life or where you are on this spinning rock when you’re reading this, but take this as a reminder that there is no limit to the number of things you can experience. You have it within you to move mountains and overcome the unthinkable. Stop obsessing over what you can no longer control or hold onto and do your best to live fully in the now. It won’t be easy, but it’s worth the effort.