Must Peep Monday #12

Nica Libres at Dusk // Ben Howard

Have you ever gotten to watch a genre evolve in real time?

In 2011, Mumford & Sons were blowing up, Ed Sheeran released his debut, and the world was developing an interest in folk-pop. Ben Howard, another nice British guy with a guitar, released his debut album (Every Kingdom) three weeks before Sheeran’s and appeared to be on much the same route.

But the fad was short-lived, and in the aftermath of Mumford Mania, all folk-pop artists had to adapt. Sheeran went full radio pop and proceeded to dominate the globe, and Mumford & Sons, reluctant to drop their shtick or their banjos, mostly faded into irrelevance.

Meanwhile, Howard, over the next two albums and eight years, evolved — radically. His latest project, Noonday Dream, is to Every Kingdom what Bon Iver’s 22, a Million was to For Emma, Forever Ago: more introspective, singular, and barely recognizably made by the same artist at all. Its intro and lead single, “Nica Libres at Dusk,” is a highlight-reel moment, and one impressive answer to every artist’s question after blowing up: “What now?”

“Nica Libres at Dusk” is nearly hypnotic, opening with a droning acoustic arpeggio that shifts just enough to maintain interest while still remaining overwhelmingly static. This repeated four-note-chord is joined by the first verse, sung in almost entirely one note. Howard is excellent at these prismatic reflections and reiterations of concepts throughout his compositions, and they make “Nica Libres at Dusk” an enveloping, unified experience.  

The instrumental is sneaky — it’s six and a half minutes long, but it doesn’t feel that way. There’s a natural progression and build of energy across the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-finale structure that disguises the track as your standard listening experience. It’s ambitious, dense and sprawling — ten consecutive listens will grant ten unique, increasingly nuanced experiences — but the song is never overwhelming or wildly complex. These qualities make the song something like a hologram, containing much more dimension than it “should” be able to hold.

This holographic, surreal quality is reflected in the lyrics of “Nica Libres at Dusk,” which, like the instrumental, coax loads of content from a comparatively simple structure. The first verse repeats almost the same stanza twice, and the second verse is lyrically identical to the first, yet the energy shift between the two puts the second verse in a radically different light — such that you might not even realize he’s repeating the lines. Again, Howard uses the motif of droning repetition and draws a stunning level of depth and dimension from almost nothing, like the musical equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Howard’s ability to spin fully-fledged worlds of musical emotion from basic concepts is surely the work of his folk roots, a genre built on simple patterns and introspective, expositional lyricism. But most folk musicians’ lyrics will explain outright what their struggle is, and Howard is more reluctant to be obvious: “Door is locked / My gums are bleeding / Outside she reads / Outside she’s reading / the evacuation procedures.”

It’s hard to call Howard’s recent work “folk music,” and it’s harder to pin it down with any genre tag at all. What is clear, however, is that it’s a descendant of good old fashioned folk, born of disinterest in the Ed Sheeran route, where you make friends with Taylor Swift, cameo on Game of Thrones, and ride standard pop guidelines to worldwide superstardom.

“Nica Libres at Dusk,” and Noonday Dream, its parent album, represent a possible blueprint for the future of folk music in the post-Mumford-&-Sons era. Alongside the Bon Ivers and Sufjan Stevens of today, they’re the symptoms of a tectonic shift in a genre as old as America itself.

Folk is currently asking, “What now?” With “Nica Libres at Dusk,” Howard has an answer: “Further.”

-Jonah Bird


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