WHETHER HE MEANS to be or not, Mancunian Damon Gough (a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy) is a 31-year-old innocent, a philosopher, leading with his heart and his muse, leaping into alleys his head probably wishes he'd not go down. Like his hero Bruce Springsteen, he's running on faith. And in a rare turn for millennial musers, self-conscious irony is not part of the package—neither on his debut album, a pastoral meditation on relationships entitled The Hour of Bewilderbeast (Twisted Nerve/XL), nor in the discussion of his craft.
Badly Drawn Boy
Crocodile, Monday, November 13
"Most songs I write can only happen on the day I write them," he says by telephone, taking a break from a sound check in an English club. "If they don't come out that day, they'll never happen again. Whatever happens, happens for that day alone. Same for doing a gig—like the gig tonight in Brighton will only be happening once and it'll only be on this evening." If they were to ever meet, my bet's that the Dalai Lama would love this guy.
Just as I'm sure that all the lonely people who yearn for an abstract but natural expression of their sorrows have taken to Bewilderbeast as easily as the UK critics who bestowed upon it this year's Mercury Music Prize, awarded to the top British album of the year. Like Elliott Smith if he went on a lo-fi symphony back-to-the-future kick or the Beta Band if their tongues could ever be dislodged from their cheeks, Gough's album draws a sprawling melodic world with a singular vision—stopping off at instrumental interludes ("Bewilderbeast"), moving through indie-rock pastiche ("Cause a Rockslide"), and soulful declarations ("Once Around the Block"), before ending in an acoustic garden of earthly delights ("Epitaph"). The lyrics are full of gentle koans, written with a toe in the waterfall and an ear to mother earth's beating heart, ushering in the blue sky as inevitably as his music hints at the melancholy clouds.
Yet while Gough's pathways may be many, his conclusion is one. The final product is a lush and eloquent piece, gathered over a decade of fits and starts, constructed to seem a miraculous whole, about as close to an old-fashioned "album" as any released this year. But in the fashion of an old Zen master, even the Boy wasn't always sure how he'd gotten what he'd gotten.
"I was aiming for a natural flow, but only so much so that on the first 10 listens [the listeners] would still be getting drawn in, feeling like there was something new around the corner that they didn't expect," he says. "It sort of ended up a song cycle by accident. I laid down the first track and the last track and knew that I had a beginning and an end to the album and it felt right. Then, I knew that I had to squeeze in a middle somewhere.
"It was mostly culled from 10 years of writing," he continues. "Some of the earlier songs are seven or eight years old, never really finished until I attempted to record the album. So I breathed new life into some older works. I often surprised myself when I picked up a song from five years ago, began wondering how I wrote it. The melody wouldn't be one I could come up with again. I also wanted an element of surprise, so that the listener did not know what was coming next—like the Flaming Lips' Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, which I had in the car for months while I was recording, but it could still surprise me every day. The way it flowed was quite irregular . . . but perfect, and that's what I tried to do."
That Gough cites the Lips, whose Wayne Coyne is another unabashed romantic trying to understand the world while wearing goggles that critics and fans alike perceive as rose-colored, makes all the sense in the world. Both are inevitably writing of their own lives and their hopes within them, but neither wants their existence so easily defined.
"These certainly aren't characters that I'm trying to portray—it's actually very close to my own existence," he says. "It's not an imaginary thing. There are some sentiments in there that I imagine people have been through that I might not have, but it's still the way I think, and I couldn't write any other way. I mean I certainly don't write as close to home as other people do, especially like a Bruce Springsteen, who's basically been documenting his life throughout his albums. I get inspired to write by abstract things, but they also manifest themselves in reality, and that's basically what the songs are based on: what I think my reality has been, whether or not it's other people's perception of their own."
And so, Badly Drawn Boy's seems to be a wisdom developed as a coping mechanism, just as The Hour of Bewilderbeast feels like a master's potion for others to imbibe when the world gets too rough. And only when you encounter such a drink, and feel it working, do you begin to realize how rare it is.