Middle of the road Britpop from a former Mercury Prize winning New Brit Hope.
Badly Drawn Boy's latest album opens with a peppy spoken-word/soft ballad/national anthem introduction. In the form of a conversation with himself, Damon Gough persuades himself that "there's good things all around, you just have to look longer and harder to see them sometimes". It's a slightly annoying conceit, because it jumps too quickly from self-doubt to quiet prayer to clumsy metaphor. But we can forgive Gough a moment of confusion -- after the critical panning One Plus One Is One received, he scrapped a whole album's worth of tracks with producer Stephen Street (the Smiths, Blur, Kaiser Chiefs), on his way to this new, patriotic, (generally) positive-thinking confusion of love and life, all coloured in lush pop.
Born in the U.K. is produced by Nick Franglen, better known as one of the members of English electronica group Lemon Jelly. His influence is fairly muted on this record, and mainly consists of polishing sounds so smooth they'd fit on the most conservative of easy listening radio stations. But I bet that subtle transformation that comes halfway through "Without a Kiss" was Franglen's idea; the slowing/shifting time introducing a subtle drum machine; and this one effect right at the front of the mix, a small clicking noise -- very Lemon Jelly.
Badly Drawn Boy, now, fits into an easy categorization with Ed Harcourt, promising to provide light, intelligent adult-oriented Britpop. Both artists have battled veering into pop's middle-ground, those overly sentimental, soaring strings and anthemic choruses. What Damon Gough always had going for him, and what made his debut Hour of Bewilderbeast, so compelling, was a kind of scruffy lovable confusion. On songs like "Pissing in the Wind", this is technically manifested in holding each night slightly out of tune. On Born in the U.K. that charming imperfection's been wiped clean, slickly produced out of all character.
The best songs on the album find Gough upbeat and orchestral. Prime example is the first single and title track, "Born in the U.K." Pity it echoes so closely "Born in the 70s", a recent single from Ed Harcourt, in its attempt to capture a social history of modern Britain in song; still, the song hums along at a good clip, and the chorus breezily gets stuck in your head. In a more reflective mood, "Walk You Home Tonight" is pop prettiness -- the swelling strings don’t convey so well, though, the song's subject (the death of a loved one).
But it's not really the instrumentation that makes this album drag. "The Long Way Round", for example, uses a prodigious bag of musical tricks, from subtle dance-rhythms to shifting piano arpeggios to a Flugelhorn, but the song's not memorable because it lacks either a hit-worthy melody or tremendous lyrical insight.
Inoffensiveness and Britpop may go hand in hand, but it's these missing pieces that ensure Born in the U.K. never rises above a mediocre entry into the genre. "Nothing's Gonna Change Your Mind", for example, sounds like a song that would be composed for an episode of American Idol, with a totally expected, soaring chorus, "soulful" vocals, strings in the background, changing to piano for a change of emphasis, and the chorus marked by echoing cymbal hits.
But the biggest disappointment of the album is wasted potential. Gough's already proven a couple of times capable of sophisticated, compelling pop songwriting, so these MOR simplifications hurt doubly. The chorus on "Nothing's Gonna Change Your Mind" poses a really beautiful and romantic idea of dancing in a club with someone, so wrapped up in each other that nobody else is even noticeable; but the song's lyrical and musical vocabulary struggle to express the image eloquently. There's still a kernel of originality and true insight in Badly Drawn Boy, but Damon Gough's going to have to work hard to get back to the spontaneity and true feeling of his past work.