JOHN HOWARD: To The Left Of The Moon's Reflection (JH Records)
Exile and absence are closely connected to the creative muse, a resonance confirmed by John Howard's latest opus. Minted in Spain, but as English as cricket, warm ale and saucy, seaside postcards, it is a gift and pleasure to behold. Within it various musical ghosts are raised to languidly stroll in the hot Spanish afternoons, all rather pale and out of context in their new found surroundings. A sense of exile has as much to do with one's state of mind, as it has with that of physical geography, and absence can be as up close and personal as it can be distant via the reveries of guilt and memory. All these aspects play their part. It is a delightful collection of songs that reflect a concise and reflective nature at home with his gifts. Unhurried and lacking in the drive to court success, and all the better as it details a natural and effortless confidence. A statement of fact as opposed to a wish to impress. It does though both in charm and artistry, but without ever being showy. A perfectly sensual cup of tea, but one that will win over coffee drinkers, and those who prefer something a little stronger to warm and kiss their parted lips.
"And Another Day" has Kevin Ayers-like strummed languidness. Leisurely and almost louche it is the perfect opener as a hymn to a new twenty four hours.
"And another day begins
It's become so habitual
As I stare at the sky
Not a cloud passing by all the might haves.
Along the lane a car disappears
Leaving dust in the air..."
There is a poet in the heart of Howard's reflective lyricism, but his muse never overburdens his use of words.
"Echoes Of Pauline" contains a perfect atonement with the passing of time, and a different view of youthfulness arrogance and self-obsession. An apology through the years and a late-ruing of admission and regret.
"It's the frequency of thoughts
Of the friendship I once caught
Like a moonglow shining on a young horizon
Maybe you will hear this song
And feel that we can still belong to memories."
With "I'm Over You" there's the stride and verve of early Cat Stevens in his early Deram Records days. The song distills the the desire to move on whilst pretty much standing still by running amok, but makes the listener feel that singer might just be extolling his recovery a little too ardently. Some people never leave our souls completely even if we no longer love them and have to write a song aa a form exorcism.
"The rain fell down the window
Like a desolate month of tears
Washing away all the days
You said that you'd be here."
In "My Patient Heart" a cascade of British vignettes cascade and fall away into an admission of Spanish settings. Church bells and flowers and wistful reflections that suggest Dream Academy and "Life In A Northern Town."
Possessed by a McCartney style gusto 'Outlines' is a neat take on just how much we rely upon others to bring the colours into our lives
"When you colour me in
And create the substance
In the spaces between the outlines
Lowry-esque figure on a winter landscape
Anticipating beauty beneath you moving hand"
"Chime" brings a Brian Wilson good vibe to things. Part choral progression and part swooping melody it is a sweet meander with a certain cynicism at its deceptive heart.
"Well the winds do chime
And the feet do climb
As we leave behind
All the bad times....
And the bells do chime
And the sun does shine
As we read the signs
That will guide us"
A sense of pilgrimage, resigned and seeking a sensibility of need and its reward and satisfaction which leads neatly into "Injuries Sustained In Surviving" and a slightly folk-imbued kookiness. A series of rather English sentiments it has a vibe of Dylan misaligned to the lyrical content. It also suggest Simon and Garfunkel at their travelogue, observational best.
"Crazy situations in the middle of the station
I can't even remember my name
Someone's got my ticket
See a beach ball and want to kick it
'Cause I'm flying against the slipstream
On this godforsaken ride"
"Centuries" explores the pastoral folk element usually explored by Bill Fay.
"Beneath a hill stands a tree
It's been there for centuries
in the winter it becomes a web against the sky
In the summer it protects from burning light
we sat against the tree when we were lovers
and when the city called
It stood and watched us leave"
A perfect revelation of a refined awareness of time and its passing in baroque setting. A psalm-like elegance resides in its unadorned mastery. It carries beautifully in its concision. Exquisite.
"Illusions Of Happiness" is pure John Howard. Jaunty, accomplished, and strangely beguiling, but with an inherent classicism and refinement. Even when singing of cicadas in song he sounds perfectly English and one thinks of thrushes, nightingales and blackbirds.
"The blue of the ocean
The boats in the harbour
The shouts of the fishermen leaving at dawn
I stand for a second remembering something
It flickers for a moment like a forgotten song"
There is an almost chorister conceit to the pure and confident "Water" and a vocal that defies both age and time, perfectly underscored with a neat percussive undertow. Free of studio tricks and compensations, as indeed is the entire affair, it has a the spirit of Clifford T Ward at its centre as it pipes forward. The perfect closer, laced with melancholia, but a happy assured sadness, the kind that caresses and cures the heart and the head. A zen-like contemplation, both scenic and secular, and a prayer of sorts.
"A vast sky of constellation
Is my roof of dreams tonight
Lying listening to the sounds
From far off hills
In the middle of the lake
Lies something still"
To The Left Of The Moon's Reflection is a perfect gem of considered achievements. It is also the first album by John Howard to be distributed in America ( but his seventeenth collection) where he was only previously available as a prohibitively pricey import. A perfect calling card from, and a means of introduction to, an exceptionally English talent, deftly left on a silver tray, like in older days that we know were far from better, though they had a certain elegance. May he continue in his backward glances towards the country he once called home. His reflections bring reward to those that listen.
The fondness of absence and the grace of longing, quietly perfected.