How the first Badly Drawn Boy album set the scene for 21st Century Post Britpop
If you had to mark the timeline when the sorta-genre “post-Britpop” came together, somewhere in the middle of 2000 would be close.
Six years before, Britpop itself was crystalizing, with Blur’s Parklife and Pulp’s His ‘n’ Hers coming out right as Oasis went on their brash run of first singles leading up to Definitely Maybe. As summer arrived in 2000, Doves had just released their debut album, Lost Souls, Travis were promoted to the Pyramid stage at the Glastonbury Festival after a celebrated set on the Other stage the previous year, and both Coldplay and Badly Drawn Boy were about to put out their first full-lengths as well. The moment was propitious for sober, self-reflective guitar slingers.
Back then it was more common for records to be delayed for a while between the UK and the US. So, while Travis’ breakthrough The Man Who had finally been granted passage to America after nearly a year’s delay, those other three wouldn’t see this side of the Atlantic until the fall season had set in. If that alignment of release schedules appeared to be a coordinated effort, it wasn’t lost on the Village Voice, which that November ran a collective Barry Walters review of Lost Souls, Coldplay’s Parachutes and Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour of Bewilderbeast, under the headline “No Hype to Not Believe.”
“Coldplay’s hooks are slight,” went the verdict on those future world conquerors. “These indistinct London lads might as well be Canadian….” Meanwhile, Lost Souls “offers more substance,” while The Hour of Bewilderbeast “…putters here and there across 18 ditties and doodles gracefully arranged, but played with two left feet and recorded to match.” Having put up with anticlimactic antics like Oasis spitting on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards in ‘96 and then delivering the bloated Be Here Now the next year, such skepticism on the part of American media was understandable, but in this case there was no need to be so preemptively wary.
Manchester-area musician Damon Gough, he who is Badly Drawn Boy, counted Doves and Coldplay as pals, even as the three were put in direct competition throughout 2000 for UK music industry honors like the Mercury Music Prize and the Q Awards (where they all faced off in two different categories). Something of a compromise was made at the Q Awards, as Parachutes took home Best Album and Badly Drawn Boy was deemed the Best New Act, but the Mercury Prize only goes to one winner, and that year it was The Hour of Bewilderbeast. At that ceremony, when Gough strolled up to the stage cigarette-in-hand to accept his trophy, some of his first words were shout-outs to Coldplay and Doves.
Thus it was more than mere marketing that tied them together. At the same time, though they all shared a thread of mellow-to-melancholy earnestness (which back then was something of an antidote to Britpop’s hubris), they had a little less in common than was generally perceived back then. Chris Martin’s eye was clearly trained on the space Radiohead were leaving behind. Doves’ past life as ‘90s dance act Sub Sub peeked out in their emphasis on riding a groove. Badly Drawn Boy was, in different ways, more homespun yet more visionary than both of them.
The Hour of Bewilderbeast is slightly more than an hour long and a touch less than bewildering, though at times it holds two opposing thoughts at once. What initially presents as haphazard assembly reveals itself to be an intentional, uniform quality. It is an ambitious work with a humble streak. Between the tracks you can reasonably detect one concept album, or, as music journalist David Stubbs posited in his review for Uncut, a pair of concept albums, “…from Songs of Innocence to Songs of Experience.” It’s also fair to hear no overarching story at all.
VIDEO: Badly Drawn Boy performs “Stone On The Water”
Except there must be something to the ‘water’ quartet in Bewilderbeast’s first half, the run of “Fall In a River,” Camping Next to Water,” “Stone on the Water” and “Another Pearl”? Well, there’s the recurrence of water imagery, which seems to waver between literal and metaphorical from song to song. “Camping Next to Water” recalls the tactile details of a weekend in the woods: “It’s misty within reason/I’m hoping I don’t freeze here/I fuel the fire, I feed its glow…./The second day is easier/Though it may be breezier.” On the other hand, the lyrics in “Stone on the Water” are brief and abstract, “Skipped like a stone on the water/Fall with no trace to lie permanently.” Preceding those two, “Fall In a River” may be Bewilderbeast’s most frustrating fragment; a long fade-in to a blurry but fetching ‘70s folk rock chorus and…cut to a splashing sound effect. The one that got away.
A restless stream of ideas steadily pours from The Hour of Bewilderbeast, but the album is comfortable in its own skin. Gough was thirty years old at the time, so it’s fair to imagine that a backlog of melodies, and recording tricks inspired by younger days spent apprenticing in a studio, was itching to get out of his head and on to tape. Even over half a dozen records later, there still really isn’t one single song that defines Badly Drawn Boy’s sound. His most popular tunes, like the album’s breakout single “Once Around the Block,” or “Silent Sigh” from his soundtrack to the 2002 film About a Boy, were as individual as anything in his repertoire. The big picture is the only clear image when it comes to The Hour of Bewilderbeast.
VIDEO: Badly Drawn Boy “Once Around The Block”
In reviews and articles, two names that came up more than once were Beck and Elliott Smith. All three were solo artists who graduated to working in warm technicolor after humble lo-fi beginnings. The Beck comparisons likely had in mind the messier sensibilities of Mellow Gold, or Bewilderbeast’s few scattered bits of beat like “Body Rap,” but the similarities don’t feel as relevant today. The Smith connections aren’t as easy to shrug off, and not just because the two shared a predilection for wearing knit beanies. “Everybody’s Stalking” and “Stone on the Water” carry echoes of Smith’s touch of the strings. The fact that Gough’s next move after Bewilderbeast was to do the soundtrack for About a Boy, a sentimental and funny romantic drama, certainly drew a parallel to how the Good Will Hunting soundtrack had brought Smith to the masses.
Badly Drawn Boy’s songs could be wistful and longing, but they didn’t have the core sadness that shaded much of Smith’s music. Gough’s hero was not a tragic soul like Nick Drake, but the life-affirming, mass-appealing Bruce Springsteen. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in November of 2000, Gough considered how much of his ultimately optimistic outlook on both love and his career could be attributed to seeing his own parents’ commitment growing up. “One thing about growing up in a stable home is that it may leave you a little naive,” he said. “You just kinda think things will work out in time. You’re in no rush….I just kind of felt things would turn out well for me…someday.”
Gough was finally hitting his stride at an age when many in rock who haven’t yet made it start to examine their back-up plans. The Hour of Bewilderbeast was also in no rush, apparent from opening track “The Shining” as it wakes slowly with horn and cello before Gough picks up his guitar. There are short interstitials, but songs regularly stretch to the four- or five-minute mark. The recurring lo-fi vibe does not come from a place of impatience like it does with classic Guided By Voices. Though it was occasionally touted as a selling point – a Pet Sounds for the indie set – the rough-and-ready aesthetic of Bewilderbeast soon gave way to more robust production, first glimpsed on the About a Boy soundtrack and then more present on subsequent studio albums.
The increasing amount of polish on Have You Fed the Fish? in 2002 and One Plus One Is One in 2004 was welcomed by fans, and his following at home in the UK stood strong, but the air of professionalism was met in the US with some grumbling from those who preferred to see the stitching exposed and felt the new consistency was a shortcoming. Not only was this not exactly fair to those records, which have held up pretty well themselves, but it also placed on Badly Drawn Boy the kind of expectations that can put artists in an impossible bind. Gough couldn’t be truly spontaneous if he was trying to recapture the same spontaneity of Bewliderbeast.
That’s one reason why there won’t be another album quite like The Hour of Bewilderbeast. Its themes and sentiments are universal, but its quirks and charms are its own. Only Gough could make “Pissing in the Wind” sound not entirely futile, as he repeatedly, reassuringly pleads, “Just give me something/I’ll take nothing.” “I hope you never die,” goes the key line in the raw country strum conclusion “Epitaph,” and it doesn’t get more heart-baring and hopeful than that. Whether the album is a structured coming-of-age song cycle or a radiant patchwork romance is up to the beholder of Bewilderbeast, but it can still offer hidden corners to explore, thoughts to get lost in, currents to drift away on.