Review Summary: are you thinking what I'm thinking?
Damon Gough’s records were never ragged
. That’s what we’re supposed to think, right" Badly Drawn Boy, the godfather of train station busking, some guy desperately clinging to a famous beard. General homeless guy. Judging from the music video to “Something To Talk About,” someone threw a guitar into his cup. Those woolly hats, right"
Image clearly lies: there’s nothing ragged about The Hour of Bewilderbeast
. It’s long, it’s weird, it’s messy perhaps, but it doesn’t need the shave Gough does. The Hour of Bewilderbeast
was so loveable because it was a sprawling sound collage, Gough putting all he had to the board and gluing his heart out. The result was a gorgeous indie pop record, as full to the brim with harmony as Illinoise
and with twice the heart.
The best thing about Gough’s sprawling, of course, is that he takes detours. His records start with important thoughts (in the case of One Plus One is One
, one very important thought, love) and wind up with no conclusion, but no questions asked, either: no one particularly cares that that these themes of love and unity pass Gough by, so long as the flute stays firmly in his hands. Hearing Gough sing about his girlfriend may get smiles, but the flute" It’s the staying power.
Sprawling is, quite simply, everything that makes Gough great. We say he’s special because he doesn’t have an editor- who wants to listen to Gough cram sixteen, seventeen ideas into ten songs" There’s no point in a straight-up Badly Drawn Boy album because there is nothing to get lost in, no chance to contemplate what on earth is going on in this instrumental or that. And It’s What I’m Thinking Pt. 1 – Photographing Snowflakes
is tragic because he’s run out of detours, or even steps forward: this is a man turning sharp on his heels. For the first time in his career, Gough is trying to be as concise as can be, compacting as much melody as man needs into ten
For a guy without an editor, that’s ambition at its highest, and It’s What I’m Thinking
suffers so much from being overstuffed it barely makes a mark. Its concentration is on atmosphere, but its atmosphere is confusing at best because
of this excruciating concentration. “In Safe Hands” and “The Order of Things” are constructed with meandering sound effects and drum machines, electronic orchestras that place Gough and his acoustic mopes on a landscape. But the landscape is all Gough ends up with. He can’t get away from it, and never really sounds like he wants to. The juxtaposition of It’s What I’m Thinking
is bizarre: Gough’s voice never raises above his song, and the arrangements rarely give him reason to. Even with the vibrant strings of “Too Many Miracles”- even at the album’s most symphonic- there’s no enthusiasm, nothing for Gough to wax lyrical about. Instead, he utters: “Are you ready to be in love again"” Snowflakes are a downer.
What Gough doesn’t lose to constraint he does to production. His centrepiece, “It’s What I’m Thinking,” is again designed for the atmosphere, the most clear of Gough’s tracks to date with echoes and an onslaught of country twang. And the more that goes into it, the less comes out: the track plods through until it ends filled with every slab of gorgeous instrumentation available, but for a track so aimless and meandered, there’s little to immerse in. If it were three tracks, sure. But It’s What I’m Thinking
is (discounting that ridiculous bonus song collage) ten, not eighteen. And with Gough, getting lost in a song isn’t as exciting as getting lost in an album.
It’s worth getting into the head that this is Pt. 1
, and what that signals is a mystery to all but Gough. It could mean a trilogy, and context could reveal all we need to know about It’s What I’m Thinking
. Would this be more engrossing, say, if we had three hours of Gough’s thoughts to stew on" It seems, quite tragically, unlikely: The Hour of Bewilderbeast
wasn’t subdued- it never shut up. And at this point, I wonder if hypothetical parts 2 and 3 would do anything to quench Badly Drawn Boy’s thirst, and just how long we’ll have to wait to have Gough giddy again. This is, Gough at his most subdued, and that is Gough at his most ambitious. Who’d have thought that ambition would be his downfall" It’s What I’m Thinking
, 2010’s most bizarre release, backs our bearded superstar into a very tight corner indeed.