Badly Drawn Boy: The Hour of Bewilderbeast (15th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
Badly Drawn Boy's beloved first album gets a nice reissue with a well-curated disc of bonus material. It's well worth revisiting.
It’s been 16 years since Badly Drawn Boy, neé Damon Gough, released his critically-acclaimed debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, so naturally it’s time for XL Recordings to celebrate it with a 15th anniversary deluxe reissue. Considering how the record is bizarrely off-kilter but in a low-key way, that small contradiction seems somehow appropriate. One of the most winning (and silliest) descriptions I ever read of the album called it “genreless pop”. Clearly that’s not technically accurate, but it does capture the overall vibe of the record. Gough manages to cover a smorgasbord of styles over Bewilderbeast’s 18 tracks without ever losing his core of catchy melodies and heart on the sleeve emotions.
Much like the sequencing of the album itself, the buzz around The Hour of Bewilderbeast built gradually, as more and more people were turned on to its ramshackle charms. It culminated in a win of the Mercury Music Prize, a yearly prestige award for the best album from an artist from the United Kingdom or Ireland. That success paid off immediately but possibly hurt him down the road with the additional weight of expectations. Gough was recruited to write the soundtrack for the movie About a Boy, which nicely replicated Bewilderbeast’s style without feeling like a retread. The glossier but great Have You Fed the Fish? followed quickly, but that album’s very glossiness signaled a downward quality trend for Gough. Nothing since Have You Fed the Fish? has come close to matching his early output, and the past decade has found Badly Drawn Boy releasing just one album and two more film soundtracks.
But 16 years down the road, The Hour of Bewilderbeast holds up. The album’s unique mixture of styles and lack of interest in a unifying production technique makes it sound just as fresh now as it did at the turn of the century. The record opens with a cello-French horn duet before Gough’s acoustic guitar and voice take over with a variation on the duet’s melody. That’s a musical choice that remains bold and unique, and the lyrics are impressionistic without seeming intentionally vague. “Now I’ve fallen in deep / Slow, silent sleep / It’s killing me / I’m dying” goes one couplet, given the impression of doom. But after a short musical interlude, Gough finishes the thought: “To put a little sunshine in your life.”
That first song, “The Shining” fades out with a descending cello slide that lands on the same note as the slightly distorted electric guitar lick of “Everybody’s Stalking”. Badly Drawn Boy has just shifted from arty folk to mid-‘90s alt-rock and somehow it works. Bewilderbeast makes these kind of transitions again and again. Sometimes it’s a segue like this, sometimes it’s a short interlude, and sometimes the shift happens within a song. The falsetto “Cause a Rockslide” clomps along on a bed of thumping kick drum and pounding low piano chords before literally ending in an explosion halfway through. What follows is two minutes of swirling sounds that eventually coalesce into a cracked echo of the earlier music. But then it all stops and a beautiful 45-second folk ballad finishes out the song, which segues right into the next track.
There is a sort of base sound to the album, a laid-back folk rock vibe that shows up in songs like “Camping Next to Water”, “Pissing in the Wind”, and “Say it Again". But those tracks are always balanced with more eclectic songs. “Stone on the Water” follows “Camping” with a pseudo-classical guitar riff and cello accompaniment, feeling for all the world like an instrumental until Gough comes in singing over halfway through the song. “Magic in the Air” is a ‘50s crooner-style piano ballad that just completely ignores that Gough’s middling vocal chops should prevent it from working and makes it a success anyway. Then there’s “Disillusion”, the grooving disco-funk song that shows up out of nowhere 16 tracks in. There is no way this song should fit on the album. But as the lyrical catharsis of the saga, the point where Badly Drawn Boy discovers he and his love interest aren’t going to work out, a disco-style kiss off seems appropriate.
As for the reissue material, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a sonic upgrade here. This is a positive, since the appeal of the album is at least partially due to its unvarnished, recorded whenever and however Gough could do it quality. But the second disc proves that the 18 tracks of the main album didn’t just spring from nowhere and it wasn’t all Badly Drawn Boy had up his sleeve around that time. There’s the usual assortment of bonus disc junk (a 30-second interlude here, a demo that sounds exactly the same as the final version there) amongst these 16 tracks, but there is also a substantial collection of B-sides and demos.
The chugging “Road Movie” and the wistful “Distant Town” would have fit snugly on the album. On the other hand the cornpone country of “A Bottle Full of Tears” and the chaotic, drums and synth dominated “Wrecking the Stage” would have been much harder to work into the record. The two different demos of “Outside is a Light” are interesting, as the first didn’t make it onto the album, but the instrumental second song was rerecorded with slight variations and renamed to become the album’s de facto title track “Bewilderbeast.” Then there are the bonus disc’s centerpieces, the twin seven-minute songs “Chaos Theory” and “It Came From the Ground". The former shares a key, rhythm, and snatches of melody with the main album’s “Fall in a River". It gives the impression that the sprawling track was stripped for parts; if this was the case, it was a good call on Gough’s part. “Fall in a River” is a much more focused song than “Chaos Theory". “It Came From the Ground” sounds like Badly Drawn Boy as a jam band. It takes a cool drumbeat and a basic guitar riff, adds a couple of verses in the beginning, and then improvs on those musical themes for a full five minutes. While this is not necessarily the best look for Badly Drawn Boy, it’s at least an interesting digression.
This 15th Anniversary edition does pretty much everything right. It takes an album well worth revisiting and buttresses it with a wealth of interesting bonus material. The bonus disc feels nicely curated and gives the impression that somebody (it’s unclear how involved Gough himself was with the project) went through the existing stuff and pulled out most of the best hard-to-find songs and pre-album versions of tracks. Fans of The Hour of Bewilderbeast who have never bothered to track down Badly Drawn Boy’s early EPs (most of these bonus tracks come from EP3 and It Came From the Ground) from around this time will get a lot out of this reissue. As with most reissues, though, those who aren’t completists may not be particularly satisfied by the extra disc’s worth of stuff. Revisiting The Hour of Bewilderbeast is a good reminder that this really was a record worth celebrating 16 years ago, and that it remains, if not quite a certified classic, then at least a near-classic album.