BADLY DRAWN BOY: THE HOUR OF BEWILDERBEAST (2000)
1) The Shining; 2) Everybody's Stalking; 3) Bewilder; 4) Fall In A River; 5) Camping Next To Water; 6) Stone On The Water; 7) Another Pearl; 8) Body Rap; 9) Once Around The Block; 10) This Song; 11) Bewilderbeast; 12) Magic In The Air; 13) Cause A Rockslide; 14) Pissing In The Wind; 15) Blistered Heart; 16) Disillusion; 17) Say It Again; 18) Epitaph.
I have an instinctive distrust for people who wear woolly hats outside of Russian winter, and this means Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy, is on the prime list of suspects, considering that, according to rumours, he does not take his off even in the shower. Seems like the «hip» people have that distrust, too, but not so much because of the hat as because nobody really seems to understand what to do about Badly Drawn Boy. Is he a genius? Is he a fraud? Is he a committed promoter of the indie spirit before the hideous Mainstream Monster? Is he a cunning sellout, molding his music in lightweight, inoffensive forms so as to be able to reap praise from all sides? Above all — if you don't love his music at first sight, is it worth trying to «get into it» at all, or is it really just a waste of precious time, which you could use, for instance, to go out and buy yourself a woolly hat all your own?
One thing upon which pretty much everyone agrees is that Damon Gough has talent — the issue is whether he has managed or not to apply it to all the right things. Another point of consensus is that Badly Drawn Boy's music is very, very, very derivative (but then, whose isn't, these days?). Everyone from the Beatles to Nick Drake to Elliot Smith to the Magnetic Fields and beyond inevitably crops up in just about every review of The Hour Of Bewilderbeast that's got enough space to cram in all these references. After that, opinions start to differ.
My own two cents are as follows. Damon Gough clearly loves music — including all of those namechecked artists and many more — and understands the many different ways one can go around making music. But the three factors that dominate his brand of music are not an ideal combination. First, he is nowhere near a melodic genius: at his best, he can produce moderately catchy folk-pop, yet nothing that would put him in a truly big league. Second, he goes for grand purposes: in line with the early XXIst century tendency to return to heart-on-the-sleeve idealism from the ubiquitous post-modern sarcasm of the 1990s, Badly Drawn Boy is always trying to break your heart, or, at least, share his broken heart with you because.
Third, he is decidedly avoiding the Arcade Fire way — this is where the woolly hat makes its big entrance — going for the quiet and subtle approach. He certainly sings his way through his songs, not talks through them like some of the even humbler minimalists, but the listener has to decode the emotion, rather than get it directly, in an uncompressed format. And it is great when big-hearted feelings and ideas get conveyed through a half-cloused mouth — but when the accompanying melodies are mostly so-so, this undermines the effect. In all honesty, there were several times I was all set to fall asleep during the record's sixty minutes — even on the louder numbers.
And yet, I would say that The Hour Of Bewilderbeast, Gough's critically acclaimed debut that, according to most critics, he has not been really able to surpass ever since, does justify additional listening. If anything, it is fascinating just to see him tackle so many different styles on the album — yes, they all relate to Badly Drawn Boy's fragile, insecure, melancholy-and-tenderness-overflowing heart, but at least he is never repeating himself on a formal level. And although the hooks are just like his heart — fragile and tender — with the passage of time, they tend to solidify. Finally, there is simply the basic aspect of the sound itself. Gough himself plays at least a couple dozen different instruments here, everything from ancient harps to modern drum machine organs, and then, further on, he's got about twenty or thirty (!) different people to assist him — including members of fellow indie bands Alfie and Doves and the Northern New Orleans Brass Band contributing horn arrangements. The miracle of the century is that, with all that crowd behind his back, not a single song on the album ends up having a wall-of-sound atmosphere to it. (Possibly it's all because of the hat — one of those new-fangled models that absorb sound waves).
In any case, the cello and horns that announce a brand new dawn on 'The Shining' is a cute touch, and once the guitar rolls in and, together with Gough's explanation that he is only 'trying to put a little sunshine in your life', threatens to turn this whole thing into «indie elevator muzak», the cellos and horns give it a solid protective 1967-like sheen that elevates the experience to at least a B+ level. On 'Fall In A River', a basic folk shuffle is steered into «magic» direction with the wonderfully trippy echoing chime-like sounds whose production mechanism I am unable to determine (processed xylophones? multi-channeled acoustic guitars? whatever). The somber, almost hard rocking (by Gough's sissy standards) 'Another Pearl' has a couple of beautifully acid guitar solos.
Towards the end of the album, if you happen to be tired from too much folk-pop, 'Disillusion' jumps at you with a completely unexpected disco beat and classic funk guitar arrangement — except that, somehow, it does not feel like a tribute to the late 1970s, an era towards which Badly Drawn Boy shows fairly little interest. He just happened to borrow a danceable rhythm from those times to provide a little diversity, that's all.
There really is a lot of good stuff to be said about almost each of these songs (only the small sonic interludes, such as 'Body Rap', do not really work at all, because Gough is much better at atmospherizing his actual songs than synthesizing bits of pure atmosphere), but I will not do this intentionally — at the risk of creating the illusion that I was somehow deeply moved by the record, and am now promoting the woolly hat guy as the new Nick Drake / Elliot Smith / whatever. I was not, and am not: like I said, Gough's obsessive clinging to the idea that he must never show you how much of a damn he actually gives plays a bad trick on him — in response, I just don't give a big damn about him altogether. But The Hour Of Bewilderbeast, with its nice, never annoying, vibe, miriads of instruments and styles, and at least an ideal formal understanding of how a classy pop record should sound (the guy's taste is impeccable), still deserves a thumbs up. With a little patience, goodwill, and, above all, renouncement of the historical perspective, I can easily see Bewilderbeast become one's personal journey towards the proverbial enchanted forest — with the wood birds happily chirping to your arrival on the album's closing track.
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