BADLY DRAWN BOY: HAVE YOU FED THE FISH? (2002)
1) Coming In To Land; 2) Have You Fed The Fish?; 3) Born Again; 4) 40 Days, 40 Fights; 5) All Possibilities; 6) I Was Wrong; 7) You Were Right; 8) Centre Peace; 9) How?; 10) The Further I Slide; 11) Imaginary Lines; 12) Using Our Feet; 13) Tickets To What You Need; 14) What Is It Now?; 15) Bedside Story.
Trying to understand what the heck went wrong here is like trying to solve a particularly infuriariting mathematical problem. With sweat rolling down my back and brain tissue on the point of self-ignition, I am still nowhere near close to an answer that I would like myself, let alone could hope it to be appreciated by others. All I know is, the first two albums ruled, and this third one... well, it doesn't suck, as such, but The Force is no longer with Badly Drawn Boy. And the most puzzling thing about it is — he didn't even remove the hat. What the...?
It got to the point when I just had to add both Have You Fed The Fish? and Bewilderbeast to my playlist, scramble the running order, and concentrate on whatever it could be that triggered the like switch on one group of tracks and left it untouched on another. Clearly, it was the worst (for any descriptive purposes) kind of difference. There were solid memorable melodies on Bewilderbeast — and some sort of smoothly-running, nicely-sounding, but almost completely emotion-free highway on Fish. Why? Was it a rushed job? Not necessarily, because some of the subsequent albums would get even worse in that respect. Was it overproduced? Perhaps, a little bit, but it's not as if Gough's previous records were all just about a whiny guy and his guitar — on the contrary, the diverse and complex arrangements helped a lot. Was it «too mainstream-oriented», as some reviewers have complained, was it a sell-out? Not at all, it still sounds light years away from generic 2000s pop (thank God). So?
Perhaps, and this is just a feeble guess, it has something to do with Badly Drawn Boy shifting his allegiances. As loud as the previous two albums could sometimes get, they were very much in the «chamber pop» vein. Introspective, sometimes bordering on autistic, stuff, dominated by folksy guitar or music-hallish piano melodies that Gough had a solid ear for. Nick Drake and Elliott Smith listed among the chief influences. Lots of innocent pseudo-kiddie mid-to-late-1960s kinds of vibes. Harry Nilsson, too. You know the score.
With Have You Fed The Fish?, however, he seems to be making a move into louder, much more out-there, territory; you could almost say he's transferring himself from 1960s to 1970s style. And this is an area where his nose for melody is somehow left behind. The title track, beginning with a solemn series of strings-and-piano swoops, eventually becomes a cross between sub-standard Elton John (that kind of Elton John which seems to value the sheer physical force with which you press down the keys more than the actual sequence of keys, if you get where I'm going with this) and sub-standard Wings (the first flying guitar line almost seems to come out straight from 'Band On The Run', but, alas, that's all there is to it). The song is as bombastic as Badly Drawn Boy's powers can afford, but behind the bombast, there is not much memorability.
And the feeling lingers. 'Born Again' experiments with hard rock grooves — unsuccessfully, because the rhythm guitar work is boring, and the wild soloing pressed against it has no basis on which to assert itself. 'All Possibilities' seems as if it just came off fresh from the Xanadu soundtrack, with cheesy string swoops and cheesier chorus vocals. The minor hit single, 'You Were Right', could have been more convincing if it were placed in the hands of Lou Reed — he'd have filtered out the unnecessary sound layers (strings, keyboards, etc.), and, perhaps, even transformed it into a highlight on one of his softer albums, like Coney Island Baby. Here, too, the real version is indeed a highlight, but... against what background?
In the lyrics department, it also seems like there's an unwarranted confusion. The words on Bewilderbeast could be naïve and technically laughable, but they matched the overall naïveté of the music. Now the words are becoming more obscure and complex, but they are not conveying any particular message. Is the guy happy? Is he sad? Is he more concerned about the future of the universe or about his dirty socks? Does the line "How can I give you the answers you need when all I possess is a melody" make much sense to you? Especially in the light of the evidence that there are next to no good melodies on the album, but lots and lots and lots of words — many of which could qualify as answers, were we smart enough to decipher them? And what's with this odd sudden infatuation with bashing Madonna, a reference to whom ("I'm turning Madonna down, I'm calling it my best move") crops up in not one, but two of the songs? What's Madonna got to have with all this in the first place? Is this meant to symbolize the turning down of mainstream music values? Who does he think he is, then, being so explicit about it — And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead?
In short, I don't like the melodies, I could care less about the grumbly lyrics, and this shift just plainly does not work, regardless of whether I have or have not managed to characterize it correctly. 'You Were Right' rocks straightforward enough; 'Bedside Story' is a moody enough conclusion to the story with a credible acid vibe; but overall, this record makes about as much sense to me as does its intro, in which a staged airplane pilot voiceover announces that "if you look out of the right side of the plane, you'll see a cloud that looks exactly like Badly Drawn Boy". Uh... okay. Maybe that's where we are all supposed to laugh. Or just an imminent omen of an impending thumbs down.
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