For whatever reason, at the time Howdy! was released I never seemed quite able to penetrate its surface. It felt like a weak copy of Songs From Northern Britain with one or two standout tracks amid much mediocre meandering.
Familiarising myself with it once again now, though, I feel like perhaps I judged it too harshly. Perhaps it was just the wrong album at the wrong time. There are not many bands who can continue to excite me over a sustained period of time, album after album: R.E.M. were together for over 20 years while I was a fan, but as much as I loved them then and do now there were some pretty severe bumps along the road, chiefly Monster and Around The Sun. But just as those albums felt both fresher and more intriguing given a second chance, the same too with Howdy!
It starts strongly with “I Need Direction”: a powerful shot in the arm that makes for an interesting beginning after the closing lyrics of Songs From Northern Britain (“If you’re looking for direction / Don’t forget to set your seat and go / Take an easy road / All you need is information / Everything is there to know”). Here, we’re back in you and me vs the world territory:
Honest I’d feel fine
if you were to be mine
I need direction to take me to you
Propelled by sunny 60s “ba-ba-baa” harmonies and an organ solo, it’s a bit of a misleading start to an album that’s mostly upbeat but somehow slightly overcast. This slightly less sunny mood may come from the relative strength of Raymond McGinley’s contributions to Howdy! “Happiness”, “I Can’t Find My Way Home” and “The Sun Shines From You” are all really great love songs, even if it does feel as though he’s trying to remodel “Your Love is the Place Where I Come From” each time. “My Uptight Life” is even better, throwing in a call and response lyric and an extended, heartfelt outro:
All my life I felt so uptight
Now it’s all alright
Gerard Love, meanwhile, also skirts quite close to at least one of his tracks from Songs From Northern Britain with “Near You”. By this stage you should be able to tell pretty reliably whose song is whose: once you’ve figured McGinley and Love out, what remains must have come from Norman Blake. On Howdy! he doesn’t deliver his strongest set of tracks, with closing acoustic track “If I Never See You Again” the highlight, while his other three songs are as well-crafted as ever but just lacking a little of the magic he’d so often shown before.
After a few listens, Howdy! reveals itself to be warmer and more comforting each time, and listening to it now I have no problem putting it with Grand Prix and Songs From Northern Britain to form an excellent trilogy. Listened to in the context of more recent work, particularly by Love and Blake in Lightships and The New Mendicants respectively, it also ties the past to the present in a pleasantly unexpected way.