BADLY DRAWN BOY: IT'S WHAT I'M THINKING (PART ONE) (2010)
1) In Safe Hands; 2) The Order Of Things; 3) Too Many Miracles; 4) What Tomorrow Brings; 5) I Saw You Walk Away; 6) It's What I'm Thinking; 7) You Lied; 8) A Pure Accident; 9) This Electric; 10) This Beautiful Idea.
Subtitled as Photographing Snowflakes, this is the first in a series of albums that promise to tell us what exactly Badly Drawn Boy is thinking. There is, however, I believe a problem with the title and the way it's spelled. Namely, there's a preposition missing: is he thinking about photographing snowflakes, or is he thinking about something else while photographing snowflakes? Because the former merely applies to a good old dreamer, whereas the latter indicates a potentially dangerous schizophrenic.
You have to wait until the third track, 'Too Many Miracles', for an explanation — a lush, slightly Phil Spectorian ballad, on which it becomes clear that the man is simply speaking in trusty old metaphors and hyperboles. He is neither going mad, nor complaining about the impossibilities of achieving the impossible. He is on a recuperative roll, trying, I think, much more earnestly to be himself than he has been trying for most of the '00s. And above everything else, he is trying to justify, at all costs, the «chamber pop» tag that has been applied to him ever since Bewilderbeast and whose authenticity he'd violated so much on Born In The UK and other records.
Snowflakes is awash in hushed, echoey, reverb-drenched vocals and similarly out-of-the-deep keyboards, acoustic guitars, and strings. The only thing that bugs me are the drum machines — maybe they have been chosen over real drums because Gough credits them with otherworldliness, well connectible with the idea of letting the music speak directly from inside the mind, but I do not agree. In my world, drum machines just don't belong in «traditionally oriented» pop music; let them stay in the domain of Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin.
But other than that little disagreement, it's a good kind of sound for Badly Drawn Boy, and maybe that is why the songs work some magic on me — I couldn't know for the life of me if they are really so much better written than the ones on Born In The UK, they simply succeed where those former ones have failed. Even if there is still no return to his light youthful past, and all the songs are rigidly covered with the same frost of moroseness.
My favorite tunes here are the ones with string arrangements, which, I believe, he should do more often: the above-mentioned 'Too Many Miracles' and 'This Electric', whose main attractions are not at all electric, but consist of optimistic 1970s-style string «swoops» that bring to mind... uh, Al Green perhaps? Strings are also put to good use on 'I Saw You Walk Away', which trots along at a faster pace than the average song on here and has a slightly more nervous attitude that brings to mind... uh, Arthur Lee perhaps? (Sorry — it's Badly Drawn Boy we're talking here. The guy wants his reviewers to namecheck his large sack of influences, or else he wouldn't be so straightforward about it). The attempt at falsetto on the chorus might be too much, but otherwise, it's a good, memorable pop song with an angsty edge to it.
I am not implying that the record is any sort of masterpiece. It brings on all the usual problems — lack of originality, lack of individuality (this introspective persona that B.D.B. keeps pushing on us has been invading our private space at least since the late 1960s), and very few songs remain firmly wedged in my conscience even after several listens. Drum machines suck, and so do a few odd individual decisions — for instance, presenting the title track as a hyper-long, deadly slow, stompin'-folk-like arranged ballad that should have been subtitled Step right up! see the artist with the furry hat pull out his brains and dissect them in little pieces, patiently explaining the significance behind each one in the process. I'd rather wait to hear the guy's confession on his deathbed than in his prime. But that's just me.
Still, it is good to know that the album continues the mildly upward trend that started with Is There Nothing We Could Do. Its best songs show that Gough's melodic instincts still function properly — when properly triggered. And they also show that he is returning to that tricky practice of combining an overall quiet sound with multiple sonic layers, which worked so well on his early records, before he went for more crunch and ruined it. It can only be hoped that on his subsequent albums he will not attempt to turn into a one-man Arcade Fire, traces of whose influence are quite visible here, too ('This Beautiful Idea' could have easily been written by Win Butler and friends). For now, a cautious thumbs up.
Check "It's What I'm Thinking (Part One)" (CD) on Amazon