BADLY DRAWN BOY: IS THERE NOTHING WE COULD DO? (2009)
1) Opening Theme; 2) Is There Nothing We Could Do?; 3) A Gentle Touch; 4) All The Trimmings; 5) Welcome Me To Your World; 6) Guitar Medley; 7) Is There Nothing We Could Do? (reprise); 8) Big Brian Arrives; 9) Amy In The Garden; 10) Been There, Verified; 11) Just Look At Us Now; 12) Wider Than A Smile; 13) Piano Theme; 14) The Letter; 15) I'll Carry On.
Having disclosed his place of birth to all those who don't know how to use Wikipedia, Badly Drawn Boy fell off the radar for three years — because, after all, an intelligent singer-songwriter is always expected to undergo occasional periods of withdrawal. But whether this was intended to be a pose or not is irrelevant: the important thing is, it helped. A little.
2009 saw Damon Gough return to the world of soundtracks; this time, he contributed some backing music to the TV movie The Fattest Man In Britain, and later on, created a whole LP around that soundtrack: the album sleeve bears the inscription Music inspired by..., which is damn right, because, for the first time in almost five years, the music does sound inspired. Somehow it turns out that Badly Drawn Boy is at his best when he tries to get under other people's skins, rather than explore the subcontents of his own.
The record is very quiet, sternly sticking to the chamber format, with very infrequent outbursts of strings and brass. This is just a statement of fact, not a positive evaluation: Born In The U.K., much to my dismay, showed that this guy could be shy, minimalistic, and subtle, and still ooze boredom from every pore. Worse, since this is still a «semi-soundtrack», much of this quiet music is just tiny snippets presenting half-baked ideas, moody but dismissable. ('A Gentle Touch' sounds exactly like those twenty-five seconds that you spend tuning and strumming up while getting comfortable on your chair, before the real recording session starts).
However, all of the principal songs that carry the principal weight of the album — and whose musical themes, as befits a soundtrack, are occasionally reprised throughout — are surprisingly moving. It is a bit odd to imagine a guy in a woolly hat inflamed by compassion towards a victim of obesity, but the title track, particularly its refrain of "ooh I am sorry...", is the gentlest, most convincing expression of empathy in B.D.B.'s entire catalog: somehow, this emotion feels real, not just a hollow, formalistic shape as it used to be all over his last record.
Likewise, the man's fingers now seem to hit all the right keys on the intro to 'Welcome Me To Your World', a piano ballad that finds a few gorgeously dusky note combinations and skilfully uses a pompous, but «hushed» brass overdub to build towards its climax. 'Just Look At Us Now' departs from a variation on the familiar 'Imagine' chord sequence, but is eventually led into entirely different territory, a cute mix of upbeat joy and melancholy. And 'I'll Carry On' provides a perfectly optimistic conclusion for the whole grim matter.
So, if in order to get these nice songs, we have to wallow through a set of disfocused guitar and piano ramblings, or a few unmemorable background muzak themes with overdubbed patches of dialog from the movie, let it be so — it's not an unreasonable cost to pay for Gough's re-emerging inspiration. The one thing that really worries me, though, is that even the good songs still sound somewhat too mature: play this back to back with About A Boy and see how enchantingly light and fluffy (in the good sense of both words) B.D.B. started out, and how much gloomy weight he has put on since then — not enough, perhaps, to earn him the title of The Fattest Man In British Music, but enough, I guess, to get him interested in a movie dedicated to a similar problem.
From this point of view, Is There Nothing We Could Do? is not really a comeback — it is a modestly successful creative re-christening, and it gives no guarantee that Gough's future records would ever be as good again, at least, not if he tries to retreat within his own eggshell. Here would be a moment as good as any for all the filmmakers in the UK to start swarming the man with commissions, if we allow ourselves a little fantasizing. A surefire thumbs up.
Check "Is There Nothing We Could Do?" (CD) on Amazon