John Howard – LOOK
Release date 11th March
Subtitled The Unknown Story Of Danielle Du Bois, John Howard over the 12 tracks on this brand new album draws out the tale of the main character, who was partly inspired by the extraordinary life of his friend April Ashley. Ian Canty scans the results…
After last year’s instrumental but wonderfully lyrical and emotional Dreaming I Am Waking album, John Howard returns with a brand new cycle of songs that tell the fictional but unique story of one Danielle Du Bois, who was formerly a 1960s pop sensation called Daniel Wood. John was inspired to complete this concept album by the life of the late April Ashley. But this album relates a detailed and accomplished story that includes, among other themes, the early stirrings of pop music in the UK, gender identity, “the generation gap”, the fleeting and difficult nature of stardom and above all the resilience of the human spirit and everyone’s intrinsic wish to live their life on their own terms.
Last Night He Woke Up Screaming’s nursery rhyme-styled first section acts as an introduction to LOOK, by directly addressing the childhood trauma at the very root of Daniel’s travails. John’s voice unaccompanied voice is typically spot on when it eventually emerges, but is soon joined by an angelic choir and his ever-present and beautifully played piano. There is both a breath-taking rawness and delicacy displayed here and the sound itself shines brightly. The roots of Daniel’s dilemma in childhood are documented, but also the parental urge for children to conform is probed sensitively and this is all cast on a high quality, lush musical backdrop.
Then we travel forward in time to London in the swinging 60s on Every Day A New Adventure, which is set to a delightfully fresh, almost waltzing, tempo. The main protagonist’s increasing success and disappearance at the height of his fame whilst en route to LA for a film project is charted further on Good Day Daniel, which drifts in on top of a cool as ice synth drone. It’s all beautifully realised, with the musical arrangement gilded with a touch of pure class.
From there the story moves on quickly with The Mirror (Look!), which finds Daniel as now Danielle Du Bois and newly resident in Paris. A gentle piano and massed vocals help to herald the identity change/rebirth idea perfectly, with the choir perfectly acting as the counterpoint to John’s elegant vocal. This all amounts to a totally bewitching concoction. Where Did The Boy Go? switches the action back to the time of Daniel’s Syd Barrett-like disappearance, with finger clicks and an upbeat drive mapping out the sorrow of loss of a childhood, but also the happiness of seeing a friend realising their true destiny in life.
There’s a lovely atmosphere engendered by Here I Am In Paris, with the keyboards flowing mellifluously. The lyric salutes and sharply depicts a new city for a new persona, with Danielle becoming a doyen of the exciting social whirl within the French capital.
Most of the action for the second part of LOOK takes place in this stylish French locale, where Danielle has settled to live after the operation which changed her life. There’s a graceful jauntiness to Monsieur Boudoir Has Parties, which fits right in with the joyful tone of the song. Still Gorgeous finds a newspaper hack hot on the tail of the elusive Daniel Wood and Danielle Du Bois in cabaret, vamping for all she is worth, which is both comic and touching. The more reflective Sticks And Stones has Danielle taking stock of her past and it seems making peace with Daniel too through examining the hurtful and difficult moments of her youth. You can really sense how well concocted, conceived and performed this tune is, it’s a real masterstroke.
The Mirror (Look) Reprise then shimmers into view, marking that time has moved on and here we find Danielle at the very end of her days and reflecting on the hand life has dealt her. The tune itself is suitably heavenly sounding. We surreally slide to the show tune stylings of 16(Woo! Woo!), which recaps the story in a life-affirming, bright and energetic fashion. Then we are draw to the finale, the dream-like A Place In Time (Afterture), which brings us full-circle by highlighting the ups and downs of Danielle’s life and celebrating it in the warm and generous way John always deals with his characters.
When you listen to a John Howard album you find yourself in the hands of a real master in the art of songwriting, something that is brought home time and again on LOOK. He breathes real life into everything that he does, even in something that is firmly based in fiction. Added to that he deals with everything with empathy and taste and of course a real flair and talent for performance and writing. The main protagonist is given substance by the small details, like the snapshots of ordinary family life and the pressure that presumptions can bring on people, even coming from those who love them the most.
The upshot of this all is that I for one was quickly drawn into the Daniel Wood/Danielle Du Bois story, that over the course of the 12 tracks becomes something truly spellbinding. You simply don’t get such a well-drawn, enjoyable and full listening experience quite like this very often at all. It’s a work of true depth, with excellent and perfectly judged songs about love and understanding that make sense individually and as a part of the storyline. Underlying it all is a simple message for us all – let people be who they are, they’re much happier that way. John Howard’s LOOK is a work of real magic.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here