Badly Drawn Boy sketches a beautiful new album
What gives Badly Drawn Boy the right to sing lyrics like, "The keys to your heart open the door to the world" with a straight face?
Maybe it's the way he immediately follows it up with a nice twist: "You've got to give me two days, and woman, I'll make you a girl."
The supreme gift of Badly Drawn Boy, a.k.a. Damon Gough, is a propensity to blend unvarnished sappy sentiment with charming wit and the best pop hooks in Britain.
Gough's 2000 debut, "The Hour of Bewilderbeast," won the Mercury Music Prize for the best British album of the year. Unlike the Grammys, only one album gets the Mercury each year, and the award is based more on artistic merit than on sales. Not bad for a would-be footballer who once tried out for the Manchester United.
"Bewilderbeast" was a sprawling affair, veering from bouncing poppy numbers to beautiful laments to an ill-advised (and mercifully brief) foray into rap.
Last year, Gough was hired to score the soundtrack for "About A Boy," an underappreciated comic slice of modern British life that was the perfect canvas for Gough's cinematic sensibility. The soundtrack album was a hodgepodge of instrumentals with a few vocal tracks that were the musical equivalent of "About A Boy" author Nick Hornby's ironic-yet-heartwarming writing.
But soundtracks are usually little more than attempts to hold the fans over until the next proper album. Now the real sophomore release is out, titled "Have You Fed the Fish?"
The title supposedly refers to the question often asked to him by his wife. The idea is now that Gough is a semi-celebrity -- at least overseas -- he's making a conscious attempt to keep it real.
It's a nice conceit, but worrying too much about fame might be a bit premature; this Boy's no Mick Jagger -- not yet.
On "You Were Right," Gough fantasizes about turning Madonna down for a date and brags about how depressed he was when Jeff Buckley, Frank Sinatra, Kurt Cobain and John Lennon died. Naturally, he claims he's "most pleased with that song, 'cause it says everything that I want to say at this point."
Thankfully, Gough has more to say on the album, and he doesn't try to make his new-found fame the theme of the album. Instead, we find more of the sonic restlessness that made "Bewilderbeast" a success.
The real highlights are tracks like the exuberant "40 Days, 40 Fights," a conflicted love song with a pretty little acoustic guitar solo. In typically clever fashion, Gough tosses in lyrical shades of Stephen Malkmus: "I loved her friendly eyes/The way they looked at each other/It moves me to tears, like a horror film."
"All Possibilities" is another dead ringer. Disguised as a cynic's litany of the sins of his cynical lover, the song is really an excuse to break out an ace string arrangement and a horn section. Gough often likes to bring in half an orches-tra's worth of instrumentation -- and he has been guilty of overdoing it before -- but here he remains on terra firma, with each instrument adding to the overall pop product.
The album's low point comes on "How?" This one begins as an acoustic ballad, opening with that little telltale sprinkly sound you hear before every awful pop chorus from Celine Dion to the Backstreet Boys. Just seconds into the song, Gough attempts the most awkward chord progression in the history of the world. He keeps going, though, and soon he's in full, plugged-in power ballad mode, wailing, "How can I give you the answers you need/When all I possess is a melody?"
Would that he possessed even that here. Happily, though, the track only attempts its ridiculous dynamics changes a few more times before segueing into the excellent "The Further I Slide," where a bass line copped from '70s funk and keyboards straight out of a Bob Marley hit fuel an exercise in effortless white-boy soul.
Later, when Gough channels mid-'70s Bowie on "Using Our Feet," he does it his own way, with female backing vocals and a shady, knowing delivery that stops just short of sleazy as he croons "After this song I will be earning a fat cent/I'll be working on my American accent." A bow-chicka-bow-wow guitar solo straight out of a vintage porn soundtrack closes the track.
The sleazy-listening vibe continues on "Tickets To What You Need," a schizophrenic tune that owes its existence as much to the Beatles' experimentation (like the bar-room piano of "Ob-la-di Ob-la-da") as to Bowie. Lyrically, the track repeats phrases found elsewhere on the album, but it's not so much a reprise of earlier material as a rambling riff through the mental fakebook Gough has been drawing from throughout the album.
We get another pop gem in "What Is It Now?"and a classic down-tempo closer in "Bedside Story" before the curtain drops on the latest Badly Drawn Boy opus.
"Have You Fed the Fish?" is an ambitious album. Not content to rest on his laurels, Gough again rolls out his impressive array of influences, adds in his own charmingly wry sensibilities and lays them out for the world to see. If the results are only spot-on most of the time and not all, it's a pardonable sin.
It's not easy being famous, you see.