Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 45)
As soon as Damon Gough, better known as Badly Drawn Boy, began appearing on the national radar in the late 90s, appearing on Unkle’s Psyence Fiction
, he began garnering comparisons to Elliott Smith that followed all the way up to his debut album, The Hour of Bewilderbeast
, released in 2000. It’s easy to see where these comparisons stem from - sensitive white guy strums an acoustic guitar always brings them about - but it’s selling Gough far short. For one thing, Gough actually sounds like a pretty content dude. Where Smith was afflicted with a twenty-something malaise that had him lacing his tunes with barely concealed barbs at friends, enemies, and the people that straddle that line. Gough on the other hand, is more wonderstruck than anything, melancholy definitely shades the tunes here but it never lapses into angst. Instead, his songs are little exploratory vignettes, like a gang of kids running through a forest as the day’s crystal blue skies give way to starry night.
The Hour of Bewilderbeast
begins with the tender wonder of a book opening. “The Shining” begins with patient cello and a muted french horn that gives way to gentle, ripple stirring acoustic guitar. “Soleil, all over you/Warm sun, pours over me,” sings Gough evoking the feeling the words suggest with ease. But just when you think you’ve got this whole album pinned down to be a nice acoustic ramble, the song gently collapses into the blustery alt-rock of “Everybody’s Stalking”, revealing the first of Bewilderbeast
’s many surprises, Gough has a short attention span. He rarely sticks to one style for long, leaping through the entire indie rock songbook with ease. There’s the urgent finger picking of “Stone on the Water”, the psychedelic shimmer of “Once Around the Block”, the assured alt-country of “Pissing in the Wind”, the disco pastiche of “Disillusion”, and the love swelled piano ballad “Magic in the Air”. Even instrumentals are handled expertly, the wondrous “Bewilderbeast” is one of the album’s easy highlights and doesn't feature a second of singing. Not only does he pull off all these styles with aplomb but he makes them apart of his own universe. The album never feels fractured or quirky, the stylistic choices all make sense in the context of the record.
Early career comparisons to Elliott Smith may have been off the mark but comparisons to Beck were closer to the truth. Much like Beck’s magnum opus Odelay
, The Hour of Bewilderbeast
is filled with curious junkyard samples and a mix that invites occasional comparisons to broken tape decks. At the midpoint of light falsetto rocker “Cause a Rockslide”, the song literally explodes into a swirl of misaligned samples before returning to the main melody played on a “take-me-out-to-the-ballgame” organ then, out of nowhere, becoming an entirely different song for the last 45 seconds. Gough goes to great lengths to make the album feel ramshackle and loose when really every moment of the album was clearly double guessed and fussed over. Many songs contain their own unique little songs, melodies are repeated accross the album as motifs, little instrumentals are used as transitions, and the album shines with the effort of ensuring nothing feels like mere filler.
Lyrically, The Hour of Bewilderbeast
is a loose concept album about the formation and dissolution of a relationship. A narrative thread is there if you really look for it but it’s never pronounced enough to demand attention. Instead, it lends the album a further sense of cohesiveness, buoyed by Gough’s fey but never quirky lyrics. “You left your shoes in the tree, with me/I'll wear them to your house tonight,” he sighs on “Magic in the Air”. Even when the relationship ends Gough never succumbs to bitterness or misery and by album finale “Epitaph” he’s regained a hopeful demeanour (“There's new life through the door/A cradle rocks and falls/As new fruit fills the tree”).
The Hour of Bewilderbeast
ended up winning the 2000 Mercury Prize and sold briskly throughout the year. It was an unfortunate omen for Gough’s career, as sophomore album Have You Fed the Fish?
never rose above being merely good while subsequent albums ranged from mediocre (Is There Nothing We Could Do?
) to downright awful (Born in the UK
). Badly Drawn Boy peaked hard and fast but The Hour of Bewilderbeast
remains a beguiling mid-summer classic. Buzzing with humidity and adventure, The Hour of Bewilderbeast
is a sheepishly loveable record that is never anything but magnificent.