Words: Dominic Valvona
John Howard ‘Across The Door Sill’
Released by Occultation Recordings
Returning from a self-imposed exile, after what has been a checkered but fruitful career as both an adroit singer/songwriter pianist troubadour of the most sublime and usually mournfully lyrical songs, and as a highly successful A&R man, John Howard has enjoyed a late blossoming of acclaim over the last decade. Faithful followers and well-wishers alike have carried Howard on a wave of adulation; introducing his unique visions to a new generation. Not so much a tragedy or tale of missed opportunity; Howard was discovered early on, his dissipating Glam rock era élan finding favour with CBS Records in the mid 1970s. Not from want of trying and plenty of critical acclaim, Howard’s first trio of albums for the label, starting with the revived in recent times debut Kid In A Big World, failed to gain the public’s attention and imagination. Refusing to play his all-important ‘Goodbye Suzie’ plaintive single (considered to be to “depressing”) the radio camarilla cut-off one of the vital links to that audience: rumours that his sexuality may have had a lot to do with the decision certainly hold water.
Leaving CBS for a brief stint, in which he played the “fashionable restaurants and piano-bars” of London and worked with a burgeoning Trevor Horn on a number of singles, Howard soon returned to record another album for the label at the end of the 70s. The new decade though, apart from a smattering of recordings with different producers, saw Howard change tact, moving into the business end of the music industry to take on a role as an A&R man. What in hindsight has proved to be a very short retirement, Howard moved to the idyllic countryside of Pembrokeshire in 2000 before returning as a recording artist in 2005 off the back of a reissue of his debut album. What has turned out to be his most prolific period began with the Robert Cochrane collaboration, The Dangerous Hours, and Howard’s first collection of wholly original material in decades, As I Was Saying, albums. Another seven albums of quality songwriting followed but it was his 2015 collaboration with Andy Lewis and the estuary pipe-dreaming Gare du Nord record label chief Ian Button, and one of his signings, Robert Rotifer, under the John Howard & The Night Mail moniker that really set things in motion. Garnered with countless plaudits and five star reviews that most brilliant album drew the biggest attention yet and proved another ideal opportunity to perform the back catalogue. However, two years on from his last solo effort, My Name Is, and with a renewed vigour to try something different, Howard’s latest minor opus is a quintet suite of unburdened serial piano and multilayered vocals freethinking.
Stripped back with no discernable hooks – the lush beautifully pining strings dropped for a more but no less melodious gravitas – the attentive accompanied Across The Door Sill album is a sagacious stream of consciousness. Not so different, and certainly keeping many of his rich sophisticated musical and lyrical traits, the results of Howard’s challenging new process offers broader brush stroked expanses and vistas. His source material, a collection of unhindered, unhurried and floating poems, were developed overtime, set to music in an organic fashion. Hence why three of the five songs on this LP are nine-minutes long; each left to run its natural course and ebb away once there’s nothing left to say. This new process is itself informed by Howard’s discovery, via the Internet, of the 13th century poet Rumis ‘Quatrains’ poem, which encourages us to broaden our horizons and to not just accept what we’ve done in the past. Well into his fifth decade, Howard has been moved to take the eloquent poets philosophical words to heart.
Ghost-like memories in the shape of the various characters that Howard references overlay and inhabit the disused, left to rust, ship and rail yards, backstreet alleyways and desert dioramas both lyrically and visually throughout the artwork – courtesy of Christian Cook. An imagined ‘state-of-the-Union’, the stunning opening lounge music lament ‘Who Cares’ seems to be rich in its description of decline; those pictures that accompany the lyric sheets showing an industrial past now deemed unviable, a burden left to rot. Poised, stark but still shimmering with romantic swells, the Aladdin Sane meets L.A. troubadour lyrical travail conjures up vivid descriptions – “Loved ones in Miami washing memories from their hair/Cheating at canasta”, dancing girls approaching a best before date, ready to be cast aside, and the “Agents and failed managers” that still thrust contracts at their feet, just a couple of those evocative sad descriptions of the decline and fall from grace. It’s like an update, a resigned last plaintive encapsulation; the America Bowie was inspired to chronicle on ‘Drive-In Saturday’ and ‘Young Americans’ – “Drive-by music lovers living someone else’s dream/Who built a swimming pool to remove them from proving what they are.” Each line is delivered as a profound indictment yet sung with a caring affection, and opens the way for the stirring evocations that follow; namely haunting fatalism and dreamy panoramas of reflection.
From the cover illustration an apparition emerges from a Manet reclining nude, gesturing to a sleeping protagonist in his garret come bedsit, alone in a disheveled double bed, Howard once again projects and muses on fate with the equally lengthy ‘Outward’. A touch of Pink Floyd’s ethereal female cooing adds a sense of deep sadness to the ponderously reflective theme. Featuring a relentless wave of the most brilliant poetic and magical lyrics (“Crazy kids in next-door’s garage/A bridge too far and a middle eight/Straight into our hearts and minds for a lifetime.”) Howard recalls what might be real or imaginary memories, set to a train journey metaphor. Upbeat in comparison the Rufus Wainwright hybrid ‘Preservation’ sounds like a show tune, albeit a mix of Weimar and Broadway. A Glam melodrama, there’s a cleverly pursed and profound musing on life, the universe and everything, but most importantly a testament on our ingrained search for “praise” and our own failings in dealing with “pride”.
“Dreaming of a better time”, the tiptoe lighted ‘Pigs ’N’ Pies’ continues that Wainwright redolent accompaniment – which Howard originally coined in the first place. No less sad and philosophical, Howard’s multilayered vocal flourishes sigh with resigned eloquence; a world-weary baby boomer’s hopes dashed by the empty slogans of the late 60s, repeated like the “It’s a crazy mixed-up world” shrug that accompanies each decade in this sorrowful tale. Yet…Howard isn’t entirely despondent, taking his chances and swimming dreamily “Towards the sky of pigs and pies.”
With glimmers of faint hope on the horizon, Howard’s parting shot, ‘Stretching Out’, has a lulling diaphanous; weaving along on a gentle caressing, but solid, piano melody. Pushing through the miasma of fame, adulation and ego, the beautifully if saddened lyrics expand upon the inspiring poetry of Rumis, coming full circle, prompting an escape from the world that fails to nourish both mindfully and creatively.
Not so adrift and experimental as to have cut all ties to his signature profound sincerity and sad romanticism, John Howard’s Across The Door Sill dares to go further with an even more immersive experience. Expanding his poetic lyricism and piano performances, stark and stripped-back, his vocals multiplied to fill the space and build the atmosphere; Howard has room and time to create some stirring music. It is a most sagacious reflection from the artist, still finding the inspiration to develop and take risks. In doing so he’s reached what could be one of the creative pinnacles of his career.