Both of Badly Drawn Boy's full-length albums begin the same way. There's the rush of esotericism right away, the musical equivalent to gibberish, which lasts just long enough to confound listeners before the album dramatically changes course, swinging into mysterious melody. And Badly Drawn Boy, as much a magician to this as he is a technician, simply lets it happen, as if his musical creativity is an experiment beyond logical control. Such deliberately chaotic charm was the stuff of genius in 2000, when The Hour of the Bewilderbeast deservingly scored the UK's prestigious Mercury Music Prize, beating out a lot of other overwhelmingly good records. The success of The Hour gave Badly Drawn Boy a swarm of loyal devotees, a platform to air his silliness and quirks, and, above all, the faith, from industry, critics, and listeners alike, that if he did it once, he could certainly do it again.
This time around, though, he hasn't. Plainly put, there's something missing in Have You Fed The Fish -- something fresh and whimsical, a tie that binds the songs together, and that endearing twinge that made The Hour such a masterpiece. Actually, no: my fear with Have You Fed The Fish is not that something is missing, per se, but there's something else there stifling the album's effect. That something else is a sense of hubris, which is pillaging his music of its alluring insecurity and patenting his idiosyncrasies into marketable commodities.
Don't get me wrong -- it's no longer the early '90s, so you won't hear me going on about how Badly Drawn Boy has "sold out". Wealth or lack thereof has nothing to do with it; the label to which one's signed means increasingly little these days; and despite the success of the film About a Boy, for which he penned the stunning soundtrack, he's still eons away from becoming a household name, at least in the States. Secondly, Badly Drawn Boy has always been a bit of an egomaniac -- the type you know thought himself to be wildly talented, even if no one else did. The curious mix between megalomania, lack of recognition, and utter quirkiness made Badly Drawn Boy a bizarre sort of musician -- the sort who was content to exist in his own little world, because he really liked it there, thank you very much. This rendered his music a completely selfish enterprise; this is one of the reasons why he is known for being an incredibly moody live performer, sometimes staying onstage for under an hour and scowling the entire time, only to return a few months later to play an exhaustive three hour set, reveling in the sound of his own voice the way a child marvels at his reflection in the mirror.
To be fair, this problematic dynamic presents a problem in the first half of the album primarily. But oh, what a problem it is. After a spoken word "Intro" and a "Theme", the album bounds into the title track, "Have You Fed the Fish". Wholly unremarkable, it opens with understated piano plunking then pushed into a dramatically grandiose chorus and midsection, which seems to explode out of nowhere for no reason in particular. For all its enormity, the song has no heart, unassisted by the fact that they lyrics don't justify the sonic ostentation. The melody that lies beneath the lines "Sometimes you got to rewind to go forward / There's some good time around the corner / But have you fed the fish today?" sounds more appropriate for the closing number of the first act of some cheesy Broadway musical.
"Born Again" is better, though it does burst forth with a machismo that seems uncharacteristic and a little unsettling. This is likely due to the strong armed guitars which ground the track. It's not as if we haven't seen Badly Drawn Boy try to "rock" before (indeed, a few tracks on the Hour take on a rock-inspired gusto) but the difference is that there isn't the small, earthy, fairy tale-ish tunes to serve as a counterweight. So far, we've had action, action, and more action -- whereas one of Badly Drawn Boy's strongest suits has been self-contained contemplation.
We do get this smaller, more introspective glory, however, but only after song eight, "You Were Right", a fine track were it not for the fact that it has an artificial, pre-fab quality; if it were possible to hear a press release, it might sound like this song, so heavy is it on Badly Drawn Boy's trademark musical quips. There's the modest delusions of grandeur ("I just had a dream the other night I was married to the Queen / And Madonna lived next door / I think she took a shine to me but I had to turn her down / Cuz I was still in love with you), the sweet lovesickness ("Sometimes it's hard to love someone"), the folksy humanity (he whistles) all against a glittery, violin-jeweled, anti-verse-chorus-verse format. Following "You Were Right" is an interlude that serves as the introduction to the real quality portion of the album-kicked off by the soberly pretty "How?", hammered home by the groovy slink of "The Further I Slide" and "Using Our Feet" and punctuated by the nebulous percolations of "Bedside Story". It's refreshing to end the album in this space, but it's curious indeed why it took him so long to get here.
The album's first half leaves more than a bad aftertaste -- in it linger fundamental questions about the future of Badly Drawn Boy as an artist. Could it be that this time around, he set out to put together a few more digestible "singles" that can't help but sound half-baked in the context of his more complex, satisfying material? Is it simply that a few tracks made it on due to a momentary lapse in judgment? Or, could it that there's a time lapse between the beginning and the end of the record and, if so, is he evolving or devolving? Either way, this is a different Badly Drawn Boy-one who still has a mastery of his old tricks but might have a new rationale for playing them on us.