Badly Drawn Boy's Mercury Prize-winning album The Hour of Bewilderbeast, despite its many merits, was very nearly derailed by the pretensions of the Erratically Scribbled Dude himself, Damon Gough (for anyone who disagrees, I counter with "Body Rap". I rest my case.). Wildly uneven, but often resonating with moments of genuine inspiration, Bewilderbeast was one of 2000's most memorable albums, with its quartet of astounding singles, hilariously ingenious music videos, and a song that was immortalized by one of the better Gap commercials in recent memory. If only, I thought back then, Damon lost his goofy hat that's more tea cozy than toque, and showed a bit more restraint in the recording studio, then we'd be treated to some true greatness. Well, two years later, his silly hat is still atop his scruffy melon, but his music is even better than before.
What an odd choice it was to follow up a breakthrough album with a soundtrack. Not only that, but a soundtrack to a Hugh Grant movie. To make the hipper-than-thou's cringe even more, the movie is About a Boy, based on Nick Hornby's immensely likeable novel of the same name. This album, featuring nine songs sung by Gough, and seven instrumentals, greatly benefits from Gough's use of the book and film as inspiration for his own material. Having Tom Rothrock (Beck, Elliot Smith) on as co-producer obviously kept things from spiralling out of control (another great producer, Jon Brion, makes an appearance here as a musician). The end result is a gorgeous, (let me say it again) gorgeous album that totally stands on its own. You don't need to read the book or see the movie to have a wonderful time with this CD, although reading the book will help you understand the dryly humorous "dead duck" motif in the CD's art direction.
Gough's songs on About a Boy continue where his best songs on Bewilderbeast ("Disillusion", "Pissing in the Wind", "The Shining", "Once Around the Block") left off, an indication that after just two albums, Gough has his own trademark sound. You hear the hyperactive whimsy and scat-singing on "A Peak You Can Reach" and think, "yeah, that's a Badly Drawn Boy song." Gough alters the course a bit with the 6/8 time "Above You, Below Me", a song that's propulsive but never veers out of control (a credit to the nimble drumming of studio stalwart Joey Waronker), as Gough sings, "I will take you as you are / Please accept me as I am." "River-Sea-Ocean" has Gough using elemental imagery that stays its gently melodic course, managing not to devolve into self-indulgence, keeping things refreshingly simple. "Walking Out of Stride" touchingly describes a friendship (characters Will and Marcus in the book and film), while "File Me Away" combines a synth bossanova beat, silly "doo doo doo"s and "la la la"s, while Gough sings a verse not much longer than a haiku over and over again. "A Minor Incident" is a simple guitar-and-harmonica folk tune, another combination of a lovely Dylanesque tune and heart-rending lyrics: "I'd be a better person on the other side I'm sure / You find a way to help yourself and find another door / To shrug off minor incidents that make us both feel proud / I just wish I could be there to see you through." And just for good measure, there's a pretty Christmas song ("Donna & Blitzen").
There are two songs on the album, however, that elevate the CD into the pop music stratosphere, confirming Gough's status as a major talent whose best work is still ahead. The beautiful "Silent Sigh", with its suitably breathy, reverb vocals, its simple piano melody, and thrumming beat, sounds like it came straight from John Lennon's Double Fantasy sessions 20-some years ago. Four and a half minutes of pure heaven, it's so lush it will have your head swimming, and has a timeless quality all its own, proof that Gough is a gifted melodist in his own right ("Silent Sigh" is the album's first single, and it's accompanied by a wonderful video featuring, again, a dead duck). The countrified tinge of "Something to Talk About" is just as good. As cheerful and upbeat as "Silent Sigh" is sumptuous, it's a breezy, relaxed, sunny Sunday morning type of song. Both of these tunes should easily rank among many people's favorite songs this year.
The melody of "Something to Talk About" is so irresistible that several of the instrumental tracks that serve as the film's score are variations of the same melody, beautifully rendered with guitar, piano, and string arrangements. The funky synth and bizarre horn harmonies of "S.P.A.T." (that's "Single Parents Alone Together" in the story) is about as weird as Damon gets, thankfully, something that some people may find distracting, while others will love it (I think it fits just fine). "Delta (Little Boy Blues)" is the other exception, a blues-based instrumental with hip-hop beats that, again, is restrained. A focused Damon Gough is a much more tolerable Damon Gough, and all his instrumental pieces are excellent.
As I write this, the movie About a Boy doesn't come out for another month, so we don't really know how good or bad it will be (note to all fellow Hornby fans: the directors of the film reduced the role of punky Ellie and eliminated the Kurt Cobain parallel story, which is utter blasphemy), but with a record this great, it hardly matters. Not since Aimee Mann's brilliant work on Magnolia has an artist released a soundtrack that was so good on its own; Gough easily eclipses recent soundtrack efforts by R.E.M. and Tom Petty. Who knows whether we'll be remembering the movie come December; one thing is for certain, though: Badly Drawn Boy's confident, exquisite, tremendously appealing About a Boy is one of the best albums of the year.