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Dazed and confused
Damon Gough struggles with his Badly Drawn Boy

When Damon Gough, the indie-pop savant known as Badly Drawn Boy, won the 2000 Mercury Prize for his debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast (Beggars/XL), he called out to the previous year’s winner, Talvin Singh. "How’s your year been, mate?" Gough inquired. "Better or worse than before?" If he’d been in the US, he’d have met an audience full of blank stares — "Talvin who?" Sure enough, whatever impact the Mercury Prize had on Singh’s career, it did not make the innovative tabla-playing drum-’n’-bass DJ from London’s East End a household name in the US.

Four years later, and the same can be said for Gough. After The Hour of Bewilderbeast beat out albums by Coldplay and the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft for the Mercury Prize, Gough was called upon to provide some uncharacteristically glossy recordings for the soundtrack to About a Boy, adapted from the Nick Hornby novel. But his 2002 sophomore album, Have You Fed the Fish? (Artist Direct), kept the studio gloss without picking up new fans.

Perhaps in reaction to the failure of Have You Fed the Fish?, the new BDB album, One Plus One Is One (Astralwerks), is largely a return to the mercurial, homemade feel of the enchanting The Hour of Bewilderbeast. On the surface, it’s a sentimental journey through the kind of British chamber-folk most often associated with the equally mercurial Nick Drake — an album directed at fans of the first BDB album.

Unfortunately, it’s a strategy that largely backfires. The Hour of Bewilderbeast pushed all the right Anglophile buttons, with Gough’s ramshackle persona and quirky melodies bringing to mind all that is good about the British songcraft of Nick Drake and Fairport Convention, Beta Band, and Divine Comedy. Mixing cocktail jazz and electronica, rock and folk, and with his ever-present striped woolen cap and grubby beard, Gough appeared like a dazed homeless person blessed with tremendous talent. As lo-fi and resourceful as Beck (Gough played most of the instruments on the album) but encapsulating years of British songwriting tradition, he made The Hour of Bewilderbeast an album worth getting worked up over.

And that’s what makes One Plus One Is One so frustrating. The album’s circuitously arranged songs, so dense with instrumental flourishes, have momentary epiphanies, but there are too many gratuitous left turns leading down dead ends and too much filler. Instead of creating a fluid soundscape, the disc dares the listener to toss it aside in favor of putting a couple of choice cuts on an iPod. The Hour of Bewilderbeast is that rare CD that demands to be heard as an entire album; One Plus One Is One fails that test.

The Lennon-ish title track opens the album with a musical palette spilling over with driving single-chord piano, tinkling glockenspiel, slapdash drumming, and a chipper string section so heavy-handed it overwhelms the roaming melody and the vocal declaration, "It all boils down to love." The song’s stumbling trumpet solo is another forced entry; it’s as if Gough and producer Andy Votel were thinking, "Hey, maybe this is how Paul McCartney did it in ‘Penny Lane.’ " But this trumpet solo pales in comparison to the upper-register effulgence of a London Symphony Orchestra professional.

In spite of clumsy production and willfully sloppy musicianship, Gough delivers a handful of beautiful songs. These are typically performed with finger-plucked acoustic guitar, as in "Fewer Words" and "Easy Love," in which he laments his loveless luck through bittersweet poetry. Simple, pared-back, and affecting, "Easy Love" proves Gough is still capable of striking an emotional nerve, even as silly bells and ukuleles circle his voice like annoying gnats. The polished rock of the About a Boy soundtrack is reflected in the boisterous "Summertime in Wintertime," whose vocal and circling flute line cling claustrophobically close to the lead piano melody. The viola-and-violin-drenched "This Is That New Song" and "Another Devil Dies" (which quotes It’s a Wonderful Life) are too sappy for their own good. The latter track is so aimless in its arrangement that it sounds like an early rehearsal, not a finished studio take. Twee instrumentals "The Blossoms" and "Stockport" add little in the way of ambiance. But there are a couple of more experimental songs, such as "Life Turned Upside Down" (with snippets of backward vocal and guitar) and the brisk, autumnal "Take the Glory," that reveal a better road not taken.

Gough remains an extraordinary talent who bears watching. Perhaps winning the Mercury Prize so early put too much pressure on him, as he has yet to make good on the promise of that debut. But there are fleeting glimpses here of the idiosyncratic artistry that made him the critics’ pick of 2000 — enough to suggest it’s far too early to write off Badly Drawn Boy.

Issue Date: September 3 - 9, 2004
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