Burgh Island Review

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Just over a year after the launch of his stunning debut album, Ben Howard has released a New EP. Burgh Island is a collection of four songs written by Ben during his time touring Britain and Europe and was recorded in only four days in his hometown of Devon. Ben says “it’s a pretty hard listen at some points but a huge relief to get some more songs down and out of my head. Onto permanent paper.”

Burgh Island itself is a small island off the coast of Devon. Agatha Christie used it as the setting for her books, And Then There Were None and Evil Under the Sun. Ben says the island and its surrounding area were a huge part for his childhood, hence the reason he dedicated his EP to it.

There is definitely a much darker feel to this collection compared to his album and earlier EPs. If you are a fan of Black Flies then you’re in for a treat; otherwise the new sound may take some time to adjust to.

The EP begins with the haunting track, Esmerelda. An almost atonal guitar ostinato instantly evokes a stormy seaside. Ben’s voice is as spine-tingling as ever although there is something harder about it than his usual gentle, relaxed sound. Already we can hear the more electric and synthesised sound this EP channels compared to previous work. Esmerelda climaxes in typical Ben Howard style with layered voices in octaves and the gradual build to a fuller sound.

The electric guitar opening of Oats in the Water confirms the new electrified sound that Burgh Island embodies. There is also a subtle use of blues-style organ that adds a different element to the track. Again, Ben uses a minor key and his lyrics are decidedly gloomy but altogether beautiful- “And hold your gates /As croak in the midas touch /A joke in the way that we rust/And breathe again”.  As with all of Ben’s Work, his passion and the emotion of the song really come through. There is definitely a touch of Damien Rice to this track, particularly in the “arranged noise” style climax which, as Ben himself has pointed out, is not easy listening but instead an emotionally charged piece of orchestration.

To Be Alone begins with an echoey, distant vocal over a haunting backing, evocative of strong winds and thundery skies. The lyrics “I don’t need nobody/ no I don’t need nobody/ to belong/ to belong” are repeated for almost two minutes, continuing the bleak feel of the EP. At this point the track takes a change of direction with irregular drumming rhythms and sharp guitar riffs before returning to the style of the previous section. The song relies on repetition and crescendos/ diminuendos like much of Ben’s work but the new tone he has adopted gives it a different feel.

The title track, Burgh Island, is the closest thing to light relief on the EP, with the electric guitar intro giving a soothing, by-the-shore, feel. The lyrics are mildly more optimistic- “And if ever to leave, I’ll say before I go / That you’re the best moment I have ever known”- but there is still a loved and lost vibe to the track. After around four and a half minutes the rhythm of the song changes and a haunting female voice is introduced, giving a suggestion of the Damien Rice/ Lisa Hannigan partnership on Damien’s album. The track lasts a total of 8 minutes and 13seconds. Most of this after the end of the song is silence apart from a bizarre interlude featuring an organ and what sounds like random keyboard notes (again, a Damien Rice-like technique).

Overall, Burgh Island has come as a surprise and I am still unsure if this is of a good or bad nature. It is certainly a very atmospheric album with instruments successfully painting a picture of stormy skies and rocky shores synonymous with tidal islands. However, due to the deep connections with his childhood, I had expected the EP to contain a more positively nostalgic sound.

The dark tone is somewhat concerning to a diehard fan like myself. What has happened to the man who sang to us- “keep your head up/ keep your heart strong”? As for the more electric sound, I’m not sure I like it. Ben Howard to me is the man I saw play at a festival with just him, a guitar and some light percussion. The things he can do with an acoustic guitar are incredible and I feel his skill does not come across as well on an electric. The tracks themselves are perfectly enjoyable but none of them create in me the emotions that songs such as Only Love, Cloud Nine and London do (the latter two are from his first EP, The Wolves, which his record company pretends never existed and has removed all traces of). Despite all this, Ben’s talent never ceases to amase me and I hope he continues to produce his beautiful music.

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