Although not as widely heard on this side of the Atlantic, Badly Drawn Boy’s beautiful debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast was one of the best records of 2000, winning Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize (like a Grammy, only not as meaningless) for Album of the Year. Known for his trademark knit cap and his eccentric solo stage show where he usually passes snapshots of his baby daughter around the audience, the one-man band from Manchester (aka Damon Gough) is a pop auteur of rare and unique talent, whose songwriting blends exquisitely structured pop with strains of heartfelt folk and soul.
As the unofficial follow-up to Bewilderbeast (a proper LP of new songs is promised later this year), Gough turns a very impressive soundtrack for the new Hugh Grant movie, About a Boy, based on the book by “High Fidelity” author and obvious record junkie Nick Hornby. While the small romantic comedy will have to fight hard to avoid being swallowed whole by the overabundance of mega-blockbusters this summer, if the soundtrack is any indication the picture deserves a chance.
Co-produced by Tom Rothrock (Beck, Elliott Smith) and reminiscent of ex-Devo mastermind Mark Mothersbaugh’s quirky incidental music for director Wes Anderson’s pictures, the soundtrack buzzes with a surprisingly elegant energy that veils a deep layer of melancholy bittersweetness embed in the thoughtful lyrics. In that it recalls the classic orchestrated feel of Imperial Bedroom-era Elvis Costello, the songs draw strength from the blending of polished pop sheen with witty emotional wordplay (longtime Attraction’s drummer Pete Thomas guests on “A Peak You Reach”).
Yet for all his studio savvy, remarkable multi-instrumental talents (he plays upwards of eight instruments) and full lush string work courtesy of the London Metropolitan Orchestra, Gough doesn’t forget his roots as a lo-fi bedroom songwriter, even in this decidedly hi-fi setting. Those roots shine through on the stripped down and stellar guitar/harmonica number “A Minor Incident” and the synth-drum loops on the album’s later cuts, particularly the electronica instrumental “S.P.A.T.”, suggesting a more desperate/captivating David Gray.
The result is a wonderful stand-alone album of great music that proves pop doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Compelling and novel enough to warrant the attention of serious music fans, but still accessible for the mass audience of a GAP commercial or a wide-release major studio release like this, Badly Drawn Boy’s music ironically shows nothing but definition and maturity that few songwriters of his generation have displayed thus far.