When the first songs from eccentric and gnomish Badly Drawn Boy appeared, they felt like stuttering, muttering loony-tune works in progress. Although exceedingly ragged and rough, the EP songs (some included on the spirited singles collection, How Did I Get Here?) are distinguished by a relentless creative spark. From his Manchester bedroom, Damon Gough offers twisting and twisted paeans to British oddball pop, along the lines of Kevin Coyne and Syd Barrett, but more intimate than the former and more joyously rollicking than the latter. These early fragments are quirky and irresistible, even if the bare- boned arrangements and lo-fi insouciance mar the chance to hear them as completed wholes. Inside these loungey ruminations, fractured fairy tales and wistful nods to such peculiar art-rocking charmers as Beck, Smog and Summer Hymns are moments of experimental, loopy charm. Gough weaves melodiously in and out of the concerns of cracked relationships, sounding very much like an enigmatic member of the Elephant 6 collective: “It Came From the Ground” shines in a Zombies manner, a bass and drums collage that makes simple beats saint-like and heroic.
Gough hit his stride with the sweeping stateliness and iconoclastic celebration of pop music that is The Hour of Bewilderbeast, the first great pop album of the 21st century. The startling leap in songcraft, execution and sonics is owed in part to the project’s other participants: Jez Williams of the Doves on slide, Hellions drummer Sean Kelly and Cannabis’s Gary Wilkenson’s colorful keys all help, but the person most responsible is the remarkable Andy Votel, a holdover from the nascent days and co-owner (with BDB) of the Twisted Nerve label. In addition to providing album artwork, Votel is an ace percussionist, drum sequencer, engineer, producer and governor of Gough’s vituperative persona: on Bewilderbeast, he comes across all sweetness and light. The songs expertly display cowboy guitar, mournful cellos, harps and Wurlitzer organ, quizzical crooning and neo-folky acoustic beauty. In a little over an hour, the 18 songs, and their slightly askew lovesick lyrics, boldly challenge what a singer/songwriter can achieve. Druggy self-absorption becomes hopped-up devious fantasies; highlights, and there are many, include the endlessly proliferating “Everybodys Stalking,” the shimmering “Stone on the Water” and the pounding “Another Pearl,” which features the album’s best singing. Within a barrage of contentious styles, Gough’s voice dismantles all influences and becomes its own show-stopping artistic self.
Novelist Nick Hornby asked Gough to score the film of his novel About a Boy. Not exactly thematic, lyrically or musically, and scaled down thriftily and wisely, the stunning songs reflect both the hesitancies and charms of the book while stretching Gough’s ambitious music. The glistening, sonorous intimacy resounds with frustrated chords of unrequited love. Shifting the emotional gravity from self to others opens the music up: it breathes and it calms. What were hyperbolic leaps and melodic shifts become floating rhythms and waltz-like serenity. The lyrics are less highfalutin and labored; the entire album has a hushed chamber feel. The cool surface and tricky shifting core are the perfect prelude for an adrenalized fighting spirit. About a Boy has Gough feeling invincible: the songs are wispier and more acoustic, with the overlapping motifs that befit a narrative’s soundtrack. Although co-produced and primarily performed by Gough, the album benefits from co-producer Tom Rothrock (Beck/Elliott Smith), drummer Joey Waronker (Walt Mink/Beck/Smashing Pumpkins), Russian bassist Sasha Krivtsov and pop maverick Jon Brion.
Badly Drawn Boy opened the windows with his glorious “Have You Fed the Fish?”, a baroque celebration of the everyday. Horns and strings, driving acoustic rhythms and multifarious melodies make this his cheeriest and poppiest work. His tender voice is fetching, rococo and soaring; imbued with a real feel for later ’60s Cali pop. Lacking the depth of Bewilderbeast and the emotion of About a Boy, the album instead is intricate and jaunty, breathing in life and never lapsing into posing or banality. The results are consistently poignant and rousing. Orchestrated sounds swoop in and out, only to re- appear a track or two later; with the strings and a few linking fragments, the album resembles a song cycle as much as the soundtrack. “Have You Fed the Fish?” may flag near the end, and some of the sing-a-long choruses echo lame Gilbert and Sullivan, but the series of acoustic ballads are knockouts: the haunting “I Was Wrong” / “You Were Right” medley features key changes and a voice that chronicles the calamities of unanswered questions; the bantering gait of “How?” is touching, intimate and artful.
Dedicated to the memories of Gough’s father, Joe Strummer and Elliott Smith, One Plus One Is One is a step backwards. Although thematically coherent, the music meanders. The album begins by asking “Why can’t you see that one plus one is one / Much greater then the sum of the past” and affirms itself in the beatific finale: “As I wait for you to set sail / Don’t you know that I hope you find your holy grail.” The US release messes that up by appending two pointless songs. Produced by Votel, with Great Big Sea bassist Sean McCann on hand, the album is quieter in tone and melodically pared down. Gough attenuates his ambitions and mutes his conflated strands of pop energy. After the debut’s depth, the soundtrack’s emotional risk-taking and the near-operatic grandeur of Fish, this album lacks a central voice. Not that he doesn’t sing well — with each passing album, Gough’s voice becomes more expressive, tinged with joyful consternation — it’s the songs. Laden with strings and studio effects, they are tentative and uncomfortable in their own considerable skins. He is still the most accomplished British singer/songwriter alive, but there is no reason for him to dumb down: simplicity does not equal sincerity. Enough of us live already here on Earth; Badly Drawn Boy needs to aim again for the heavens.