Badly Drawn Boy
Born in the U.K.
ince charming his way into the mainstream with his magical, Mercury-winning debut, Damon Gough’s trio of successive albums have all been different shades of disappointing. About a Boy slathered on the sentimentality too thickly, Have You Fed the Fish? overdid zaniness, and One Plus One Is One was too unassuming for its own good. But all of them still contained glimpses of the man that made The Hour of Bewilderbeast such a winning experience. His new album finally sees the last such glimpses disappear, likely for good.
The people that seem to consider Born in the U.K. as yet another “best since Bewilderbeast” see it as a set of romantic songs. But while the vast bulk of it is taken up with love, any romance found here is of a deeply impersonal kind. When Badly Drawn Boy sang “We slept on leaves on my drive, all night” on Bewilderbeast’s “Magic in the Air” you could almost feel the tarmac. There’s no such dirty, beautiful reality on his new album, just grand empty gestures backed by production polish and symphonic schmaltz. It’s not that there weren’t some lines like “If you could be my queen, I’ll be your king” before, but they were always surrounded by musical and lyrical flights of fancy—something sorely missed on Born in the U.K.. Gough has never sounded so Hollywood-ready.
“Welcome to the Overground” epitomizes its worst faults early on, with a needlessly messy arrangement (dramatic piano chords, different choirs singing multiple parts on every line) puffing up a ridiculously flimsy song. There’s plenty more where that came from; “One Last Dance,” “The Way Things Used to Be,” and “A Journey from A to B” are all hopelessly slushy. The cod-funk intro of “Walk You Home Tonight” sparks a hope that’s extinguished quickly by Gough’s tepid synthetic string-laden balladry. There are a few moments when things almost work (the uneasily shifting beat of “Without a Kiss,” the well-paced single “Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mind”), but they’re moments—nothing more.
The lack of specificity, whether fabricated or real, is a troubling shift for Gough. Especially considering the album is called Born in the U.K.. There’s little about the record, whether lyrically or musically, that couldn’t be from anywhere in the world, and only a last minute, Hornby-pleasing reference to “Thunder Road” has much to do with Springsteen.
Issues are addressed only in the faux-naïve intro conversation with himself about his place in the world (“I don’t know who I am anymore” may be the most honest moment of the whole record) and the title track that follows. That song opens with a few notes of “Land of Hope and Glory” and briskly connects a grab bag of British icons past (Sid Vicious, Virginia Wade, hosepipe bans) in the sort of emptily nostalgic manner that Sandi Thom excels in. Musically it’s “You Were Right” redux, but even that rehashed flicker of life is enough to make it the record’s standout. An album of such statements about life in Britain would probably have been an embarrassing failure, but at least it might have been a bit more worthy of attention than this.
Reviewed by: Iain Forrester
Reviewed on: 2006-10-26