The opening title track to Badly Drawn Boy's fourth album One Plus One Is One is so expansive, so inclusive, so across-the-board appealing, that it could be many things: an embrace of symbiotic assimilation; a simple plea for the world to slow down; an attempt to find solace in trying, troubling times; or a return to a stable home base, loved ones, and more reserved way of life.
It's hard to hear lines like "Back to being who I was before / Opened all the doors you tried to close" and not see the song as the latter. After all, One Plus One represents a return to England for Damon Gough (AKA Badly Drawn Boy) following two luscious albums of L.A.-kissed, Tom Rothrock-produced pop. Gough is back to recording with Twisted Nerve co-founder Andy Votel, but don't mistake their reunion as a rehash of Gough's first full-length, the Mercury Prize-winning The Hour of Bewilderbeast. One Plus One is a decidedly British recording, diaphanously pastoral and airy; unfortunately, it's also somewhat of a stylistic microcosm in relation to Bewilderbeast's eccentric multiple personality folk. Despite some truly inspired songs, One Plus One doesn't have the same dizzying effect as the genre-hopscotching Bewilderbeast or the orchestrated beauty of confident follow-ups About a Boy and Have You Fed the Fish?.
It took me a few listens to arrive at this opinion. I was ready to love One Plus One unconditionally (after three near-perfect records, could Gough really disappoint?), but initially found it to be underwhelming. After the third listen, I completely changed my tune and may have possibly declared it as "one of Badly Drawn Boy's best" to a few friends. Upon further, more detailed inspection, flaws in the surface revealed themselves as deeper issues in the album's framework. Pretending that they weren't there didn't make them go away -- much to my dismay.
Nevertheless, Gough is still finding ways to be optimistic in an otherwise foreboding world, as seen in One Plus One's strongest songs. The aforementioned title song blooms into blinding rays of pop sunshine, its layers of piano, strings, xylophone, and trumpet reinforcing the buoyant, hopeful lyric: "As the past becomes the future / It gets clearer that it still boils down to love and peace / Give me some peace". The album's centerpiece, "Year of the Rat", is also its most satisfying rush of Phil Spectorized grandeur. A timpani explosion rings out like an announcement across the countryside; bells echo the chorus of children that help Gough deliver the song's message: "Everybody needs to know it's the year of the rat / Every day we've got to hold on / 'Cause if we hold on, we could find some new energy". The chin-up-cheer-up vibe gets infectious on the Americana-tinged "Four Leaf Clover", in which Gough urges, "I'll let you borrow my four leaf clover / Come on, take it with you, you can pass it on / Come on, you know I'm not the kind to say that it's over". "Another Devil Dies" is one of Gough's is-it-lounge-parody-or-parodic-lounge moments (see BDB's live show to fully witness Gough's Andy Kaufman-esque ability to deliver an upside-down lounge show and test audiences): sandwiched between swelling fits of recorded crowd applause, the piano leads the band through a quasi-Latin groove spiked with flutters of flute and muted trumpets. "It feels like we've weathered the storm / Without having the privilege of calm," Gough sings, adding weight to the song's ambiguously wry arrangement.
It pains me -- really pains me -- to admit that these may be the only wholly satisfying songs found on One Plus One. Gough's proven track record as a talented songwriter and arranger peeks out from behind the album's austere curtain, but is marred by a number of unfortunate decisions. The shambling "Summertime in Wintertime" (one of the album's few electric guitar-driven rockers) doesn't benefit from the inclusion of a prominent flute solo -- it's so daft, so puzzling, so Jethro Tull that it uncomfortably comes off as satire (is there any other feeling flute rock can evoke?). "This is That New Song" boasts some fab string quartet flourishes a la "Eleanor Rigby", but trembles under Gough's one true -- if occasional -- weakness of precious, maudlin lyrics ("If I knew where all the tears were flowing to / I'd guide them to a river / Where I'd swim with you downstream").
Slightly more baffling are the failed attempts at lofty craft and production, an area that Gough has previously excelled in. "Logic of a Friend" sports some serious Elliott Smith harmonic cadences, but its flow is bumbling, its production mediocre and dull. The closing Broadway-in-a-smoky-bar number "Holy Grail" once again employs the delightful children's choir, but ultimately proves to be a messy eight minutes of cacophony, drum fill ripples, and backwards tape crescendos. Gough's intentions are good, but his execution simply isn't as precise as we've grown accustomed to.
The main problem with One Plus One is that Gough simply sounds too grounded among its provincial earth tones. Past Badly Drawn Boy releases found success as impulsive whirligigs, reveling in shiny and sparkling adornments. It's good to see Gough switch gears again, and he's definitely onto something different here. But I'll be damned if it isn't tough to watch a unique songwriter tread the tepid waters of average when you know he's capable of so much more.