“I’m a failure at heart/but it seems I succeed when my heart feels the need to be helpful”
The lines above are the first things that Damon Gough sings on the title track of his new Badly Drawn Boy album. The song itself is placed midway through the record, but it largely sums up his career in music thus far. Somewhere around the year 2000, Badly Drawn Boy was being touted as the “next big thing” built largely on the strength of his debut album “The Hour of Bewilderbeast”. The “About A Boy” soundtrack was an additional strong point, though the quality of his songs and songwriting in general began to decline with “Have You Fed the Fish?” and continued a downward trend all the way beyond 2006’s “Born in the U.K.”. When all that prediction of major success didn’t fully pan out, Gough felt creatively tapped out and walked away from making music, perhaps forever. Perhaps it was out of the need for some cash, or just that he was friends with people involved in the show, but last year Gough agreed to write some songs for the soundtrack to the British TV show “The Fattest Man in Britain”. Upon releasing those tracks in the form of the album “Is There Nothing We Could Do?”, it didn’t exactly re-ignite the hype that he had earned much earlier in his career, but after being forced to write music he was creatively stimulated like he hadn’t been in quite awhile. So now Badly Drawn Boy is back in full effect, and Gough has set about to release a trilogy of records, the first of which came out earlier this year, titled “It’s What I’m Thinking, Pt. 1 – Photographing Snowflakes”.
One of the most compelling and exciting things about the early Badly Drawn Boy records was how much Gough was able to do with a simple acoustic guitar and voice. Not only did his songwriting suffer in quality as time went on, but he constantly felt the pressure to expand his sound with each new album, to the point where everything became completely overblown with extensive string sections among other things. For one man his compositions were often backed with dozens of others that often hurt more than they helped. As “It’s What I’m Thinking, Pt. 1 – Photographing Snowflakes” begins with the track “In Safe Hands”, you’re left with an acoustic guitar, a light splattering of drums, a minimally invasive bit of electronic skittering, and Gough’s voice treated with a bit of an echo effect. The song probably sounds just as good with only the guitar and no vocal effects, but the added bits do make it more haunting and dramatic. It’s a minimalist song at heart, and extremely un-busy compared to what he was doing back in 2006. The same goes for the next track, “The Order of Things”, which is a bit brighter sonically and utilizes a drum machine for percussion while a hazy radio broadcast hides far back in the mix. As the swell of strings dominates over “Too Many Miracles”, it’s automatically easy to assume that Gough has fallen back into old patterns and is preparing to unleash some epic composition on you. The good news is that the strings avoid becoming too invasive or overbearing and instead just stick with the upbeat melody while Gough waxes poetic about the beauty in the world. It’s quite nice, really. Thankfully, though those strings stick around for much of the record, there’s ample restraint applied to them so they’re not problematic. The 6.5 minute title track is extremely self-loathing but well written as the words slide past amid rather pleasant balladry of piano and slide guitar. Though “You Lied” has an almost soft rock quality to it that you might find on a Seal or Sting album, its bare bones instrumental approach is again very welcome and brings back the early days of Badly Drawn Boy. Speaking of those early days, after a pretty depressing first 8 tracks, the record’s final two songs are a bit poppier and lighter on their feet, which is really what Gough does best. It’s a nice way to close things out, but you’re left wondering why there couldn’t have been more of those types of songs across the entire album rather than just confined to the end. Most albums are front-loaded with hits, but in this case, outside of “Too Many Miracles”, the hits come at the end.
Lyrically speaking “It’s What I’m Thinking, Pt. 1 – Photographing Snowflakes” deals a lot with the first half of its title. Gough does a whole lot of introspection about his life and career thus far, and a fair portion of it is from the perspective of a guy that hit his peak 10 years ago and has constantly struggled ever since. Tragic though that may be, the time away from making music these last few years sharpened his wordplay a bit, and in some respects it’s comforting to hear him lay those emotions out like he does here. He also doesn’t spend the entire album talking about himself, as that’d come off as egotistical and selfish. There are ruminations on life and nature and love as well, all big topics that are far more relatable than personal failures. The guy could use some significant cheering up though, and hopefully subsequent volumes of the “It’s What I’m Thinking” series will bring that back with greater ease. For the time being, consider this “Photographing Snowflakes” chapter as something of a rebirth for Badly Drawn Boy. If 2006 was the year Gough reached the bottom, 2010 is the year he starts clawing his way back up the mountain. Progress has been made, and this new one is by no means a redemption, but more serves as a hopeful look at things to come. It’s unlikely that Badly Drawn Boy will ever make good on that “next big thing” tag once applied to him, but with the pressure of that now fully taken away, perhaps he can finally find a consistency in his sound that will satisfy fans and critics for years to come.