...it's an unambiguously cohesive piece of work...
After what feels like aeons of relentless buzz, time to taste the honey. The first thing to say about the debut [a]Badly Drawn Boy[/a] album is that it’s an unambiguously cohesive piece of work, unlike the slew of skittish EPs which heralded Damon Gough as some bedroom-bound minstrel of melancholy and caused minor hurricanes in A&Rland. Sure, there are cul-de-sacs aplenty, but Gough never strays for long from what feels like a preconceived attempt to assert his credentials as an upstanding creator of ‘proper music’.
This is the man labelled ‘the British Beck‘, as poisoned as chalices get. The two draw on different strands of musical heritage, though, whatever the similarities in homespun modus operandi. [a]Badly Drawn Boy[/a] most vividly echoes the Northern songs of The Beatles and The Smiths, hardly touchstones of the avant-garde, and both renowned for making happiness feel sad or vice versa. The French horn/cello reveille of ‘The Shining’ sets the tone at the outset: he wants “to put a little sunshine in your life”. ‘The Hour Of Bewilderbeast’ is the sound of a man watching a river slide by on a summer’s day – water imagery recurs time and again – and reflecting with inevitable wistfulness on the bittersweet journey. “Love is contagious”, he sings on ‘Magic In The Air’, appropriating the chorus from Taja Sevelle‘s 1988 hit of that name, before the caveat: “when it’s alright”. The implication being, of course, that even when not alright, love seems pretty much inescapable.
For all the patently traditional nature of his music, [a]Badly Drawn Boy[/a] can evince a charm that feels quite radical in its artlessness. No wonder Liam Gallagher was so enthused by ‘Once Around The Block’ and its lovely, unaffected Latino breeze. ‘Say It Again’, featuring the authentic Bolton gumbo of the Northern New Orleans Brass Band, has a similar naive appeal. The more fractious textures of ‘Fall In A River’ and ‘Everybody’s Stalking’ lend contrast to the oppressive plangent orthodoxy. On ‘Disillusion’ he turns into The Isley Brothers circa ‘Summer Breeze’, a mad idea that somehow works.
Yet in his desire to create a self-consciously classic album, BDB has erred on the side of generosity. At 63 minutes, ‘The Hour Of Bewilderbeast’ is true to its title: there’s simply too much to sustain one’s unswerving attention. Its 18 tracks were apparently whittled down from over a hundred, yet in his desire to put out as much music as possible Gough overreaches himself, lobbing in appendices everywhere. ‘Cause A Rockslide’ epitomises the problem: a cute Lennonesque fragment which hops needlessly into a looped coda and then becomes an altogether different acoustic song before the advent of ‘Pissing In The Wind’ restores a sense of propriety.
Perhaps Gough felt as burdened as everyone else with the weight of his preordained genius. There are worse crimes than trying too hard, however, and if this debut represents a venting of the creative bowels as well as the first coherent testimony of an authentic new voice it suggests that whatever [a]Badly Drawn Boy[/a] does next will embrace greatness full-on. As things stand, he’s sunny-side-up with clouds on the side: a very English summer sort of guy.