BADLY DRAWN BOY: ABOUT A BOY (2002)
1) Exit Stage Right; 2) A Peak You Reach; 3) Something To Talk About; 4) Dead Duck; 5) Above You, Below Me; 6) I Love N.Y.E.; 7) Silent Sigh; 8) Wet, Wet, Wet; 9) River-Sea-Ocean; 10) S.P.A.T.; 11) Rachel's Flat; 12) Walking Out Of Stride; 13) File Me Away; 14) A Minor Incident; 15) Delta (Little Boy Blues); 16) Donna & Blitzen.
I admit to having never read any of Nick Hornby's novels, and, furthermore, I am nowhere near a major Hugh Grant fan (according to my humble opinion, the man belongs to that unfortunate category of talented actors who never get to play in worthwhile movies), but I did see About A Boy when it came out, and... uh... well, it was one of those Hugh Grant movies. But, honestly, I was simply too concerned trying to figure out whether the movie itself had any redeeming qualities to it to notice the quality of the soundtrack. My bad — had I called up some more brain cell reinforcements back then, I would have learned about Badly Drawn Boy eight years earlier, when his career had not yet been spoiled by years of torturous anti-reviews on Pitchforkmedia.
About A Boy is just a soundtrack to the movie, but apparently, Damon Gough was a major Nick Hornby fan (or Nick Hornby was a big Damon Gough fan, I keep mixing these things up), and the commission to write all of the music for the movie pronged him into releasing the strongest collection of «sad sunshine pop» tunes he'd ever assembled for one album. Leave out the brief instrumental links and there are 13 good-to-great compositions here, simple, but vital, proving that at least as late as 2002 your average basic retro-pop recipé was still working.
Unlike Bewilderbeast, which sort of rocked back and forth between all sorts of emotions, this one here is a fairly happy affair — not «happy» as in «Prozac-happy», but «intelligently happy», one of those records that purports to cheer you up in the face of well-acknowledged and genuinely troublesome odds. 'A Peak You Reach' opens the album on exactly that particular note: starting out all worriesome, then slowly and softly rocking its way into an exciting mash of acoustic and slide guitars and falsetto doo-doos that prop up the song's message — "I'd like you to feel we've reached our peak" (and he has, definitely).
Ensuing highlights include 'Something To Talk About' (nice old music-hall-ish piano shuffle à la Small Faces or something like that); gorgeous piano-pop on 'Silent Sigh', most of whose very confused lyrics are delivered in an odd, post-psychedelic aspirated falsetto; the overtly cutesy 'File Me Away', whose doo-doos and la-las could easily fit into Sesame Street (but that has never been a crime in and out of itself); and the bravely romantic finale of 'Donna And Blitzen', epic in scale and mostly cheese-free in the little details. Some of the instrumentals are quite listenable on their own, too — 'Delta' and 'S.P.A.T.' both have cool beats and make good use of the brass section (with a particularly splendid bass sax solo on the former).
If it's at all possible, About A Boy creates an even more fragile and delicate world than Bewilderbeast, one in which human relations seem to be made of thin porcelain, and emotional life only exists within the confines of a specially constructed clean room. It was, perhaps, inevitable that Hornby and Gough found each other — creators of perfectly sanitized environments are rare enough these days, and they sure must get lonely from time to time. If you believe that «grit» should be an essential component of even soft pop music, the shiny, Platonic, above-the-clouds atmosphere of About A Boy will be irritating. But I'd rather take the perfect, removed-from-life abstraction of the soundtrack than the accompanying movie, which, as I remember it, was sort of insisting on its happening in real life, despite essentially consisting of a fairy-tale dream. Me, I like my fairy-tales properly disconnected from my immediate neighborhood, so it's a thumbs up for the soundtrack, and let's pretend I forgot my thumbs at home when I rented the movie.
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