[13 October 2010]
A decade ago, Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy, released his debut album The Hour of Bewilderbeast. It was a great record that put elements of rock, disco, symphonic pop, and classical guitar alongside simple folk music. Bewilderbeast was incredibly successful from a creative and critical standpoint, even capturing Britain’s coveted Mercury Music Prize for best album of 2000. The success of that album got him a gig writing and recording the entire soundtrack to the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel About a Boy, which turned out to be more pop-oriented and boisterous than his debut album. From there, Gough went on to release a series of albums with diminishing returns. 2002’s Have You Fed the Fish? was busy and cluttered, but it had some shining pop songs and great musical moments that made it worthwhile. 2004’s One Plus One Is One went overboard with prog-rock-inspired material, going so far as to employ Jethro Tull-style flute on several tracks. And 2006’s Born in the UK was covered in a bright sheen of pop production but had very few memorable songs. Badly Drawn Boy’s descent from indie-folk icon to overproduced pop warbler was probably one of the 00’s saddest cases of creative implosion.
A few years off, then, might have been just what Gough needed to right himself. In the interim between Born in the UK and It’s What I’m Thinking, the only time Badly Drawn Boy has popped onto the radar was to do another soundtrack, this time for the UK-only film The Fattest Man in Britain. On the other hand, the full title of this new album is It’s What I’m Thinking: Part One, Photographing Snowflakes, which doesn’t imply a return to the less pretentious Badly Drawn Boy of old at all.
However, the album opens with soft, minor-key acoustic guitars accompanied only by sparse percussion and a simple bassline. “Safe Hands” is moody and atmospheric and recalls Gough’s earlier material quite effectively. The melody isn’t quite up to par, but the song at least gives the listener hope that Gough might finally be backing away from the pop bombast a bit. “The Order of Things” follows next, with soft drum machine beats and more quiet acoustic guitars. A glockenspiel plays in the background as Gough complains, “Birds in the sky steal my melodies / All I know is I don’t know what this means / But sometimes it’s good to rearrange the order of things.” Musically, the simple arrangement does this song few favors, but the melody is strong enough to make it worthwhile. The third track, the single “Too Many Miracles” employs a full string section and sounds much more like latter-day Badly Drawn Boy, but it’s catchy enough to work.
That’s sort of the story of It’s What I’m Thinking. Many of the songs are successful, but just barely. Early on in his career, Gough had a knack for bringing seemingly disparate elements together to create beautiful songs. That knack seems to gradually dissipated to the point where Gough still uses the disparate elements but rarely gets them to work together. One track will employ, say, a banjo to good effect, but lack a strong melody, while another will have a great melody but terrible lyrics. “I Saw you Walk Away” has an interesting piano riff that gets buried in the treacly string arrangement of the song. It also has a clunky refrain; “How could you say that I don’t wanna live / I wanna live!” It’s What I’m Thinking‘s nadir comes with the six-and-a-half-minute title track, which drags on and on. The music is a skeleton of an idea, employing simple acoustic guitar strumming, slide guitar, and a basic bass line with little creativity. Gough’s lyrics literally seem to be what he was thinking while recording the song, a string of tossed-off couplets and verses that barely connect at all. And there’s very little going on melodically, either, which makes the song a gigantic slog to get through.
The album’s latter half is more of the same. “A Pure Accident” approaches pop bliss and is one of the best moments on the record, but it lacks the cathartic chorus the whole song seems to be building towards. “You Lied” drifts along on dark, gauzy production as Gough pleads “All that I ask is you treat me like a man / All that I ask is you need me while you can.” “This Electric” is exactly the sort of overproduced pop cheese that makes you forget how good Badly Drawn Boy once was, while album closer “This Beautiful Ideas” is just forgettable.
Gough has pulled back a lot from his last official album. Although there are still individual songs here and there that are over-the-top, this album sounds more like the Badly Drawn Boy of old. But since the songs aren’t up to the high standards he set for himself a decade ago, It’s What I’m Thinking is more like Gough doing a mediocre imitation of early Badly Drawn Boy than recapturing what once made him great. There are hints here and there of the great songwriter and arranger he used to be, but not quite enough to convince us he’ll ever really return from his aforementioned creative implosion.