BADLY DRAWN BOY The Hour Of Bewilderbeast (Twisted Nerve/XL)

It might have been a long time coming - lagging three years behind his debut EP, and two after his guest appearance on the Unkle album - but Damon Gough's debut long player has been worth the wait, a sentiment happily shared by this year's Mercury Music Prize jury. "The Hour Of Bewilderbeast" is over an hour of fragmentary, patchwork music, flitting breathlessly from gentle, Nick Drake-style acoustic folk tracery to Beatley pop to bouncy white-boy funk within the space of its 18 tracks. The whole kit caboodle was written and produced by Gough himself, and he also plays a goodly percentage of it, performing on guitars, keyboards, bass and percussion, with members of Alfie, Mum&Dad and the currently unassailable Doves plucking and hitting things too.

What's great about "The Hour Of Bewilderbeast" is that it seems to act like a pure conduit for the outpourings of its creator's restless imagination, as if its contents were poured directly from Gough's head onto plastic, uncompromised by intervention from record company suits. There's a rich vein of humour running through the album too: "Fall In A River" literally does, the second half sounding distinctly waterlogged. Even Gough's much-documented admiration of Bruce Springsteen gets a look-in, with "Everybody's Stalking" quoting the "strap your hands across my engines" line from "Born To Run". And although it would be a little extreme to call "The Hour Of Bewilderbeast" a concept album, there's something underneath its superficial scrapbook of ideas that suggests a greater logic at work, as if the music aspires to a kind of crumpled cinematic grandeur (a theory supported by calling a song "The Shining" and pasting a picture of Woody Allen into the cover collage). Woven through this is all manner of sonic mischief: string and brass sections, loops, samples, effects, Wurlitzers, even a Theremin at one point. Picking standouts seems futile: maybe some of the brief instrumentals verge on the disposable, but removing them would almost certainly upset the delicate balance of the album's grand sweep. Nevertheless, I can't help smiling when the intro to the recent Doves-assisted single "Disillusion" kicks in: there's something irresistible about that guitar sound, and the way the melody elbows its way out of the rural folkadelia that constitutes much of the rest of the album.

If you need a brief soundbite to encapsulate Badly Drawn Boy's sonic universe, think of him as the British Beck. Both artists share a stylistic vision - hammering something contemporary and universal from their respective countries indigenous musics - and a modus operandi, presenting their work in staunchly independent fashion. If it’s a comparison that intrigues, you're on your way to understanding the fuss about this album.

BADLY DRAWN BOY About A Boy Original Soundtrack (Twisted Nerve/XL Recordings)

Apparently recruited at the personal behest of the author, Badly Drawn Boy's soundtrack to the cinematic adaptation of Nick Hornby's third novel is a small but treasurable example of Damon Gough's big-hearted music. Of necessity, the more extreme examples of the rampaging stylistic diversity and inspired wackiness that characterised "The Hour Of Bewilderbeast" have been carefully filed off here (at no point does a song plunge into a nearby river, for example). Nevertheless, even operating with a reduced sonic palette the Boy lurches from trombone techno ("S.P.A.T.") to robotic easy listening ("File Me Away") to Donovan-esque folk strumming ("A Minor Incident") in the space of a few minutes.

But mostly "About A Boy" is painstakingly honed sweet-natured pop music, arguably exactly what the film needed given that the Snoop Dogg and Nirvana references of the original novel have been stealthily excised from the screenplay. And Gough is such a master of his art that even the fleeting instrumental cues that flicker for barely 30 seconds ("Exit Stage Right" and "Dead Duck", for example) are suffused with hummable melodies that haunt. And the proper songs, whilst arguably not really being the equal of the finest moments of his lauded debut album, barely feel the pinch of being written to order. In fact the likes of "A Peak You Reach" (once safely past its unpromising American sit-com theme introduction), "Something To Talk About" and the stuttering single "Silent Sigh" suggest comparisons with the finer work of master craftsmen like Pauls McCartney and Simon. Best bit for me, though, is the closer "Donna & Blitzen", a former limited edition Christmas single thrown away under the film's end credits, a marvellous confection of sleighbells and synthetic strings that deserves to soundtrack all discerning seasonal festivities. Approach it without expecting a second "Hour Of Bewilderbeast" and "About A Boy" makes a charming addition to the Badly Drawn Boy canon.

BADLY DRAWN BOY The Great Hall, Cardiff University Students Union 2 December 2002

This being another night of testing for my theory that the time on the ticket is the time I should leave home rather than the time I should arrive at the venue, the unnamed support band were plunged deep into their set by the time I reached The Great Hall, and, just like the last time I was here (Queens Of The Stone Age in October) it seems to be Skunk Rock Semester. The quartet on stage have a singer who's a vocal dead ringer (deaf ringer?) for Shaun Ryder, some not-too-hackneyed grooves and - scuppering my theory that they would probably turn out to be another Twisted Nerve signing - a CD on sale in the foyer for 5. Cheers then. They were followed - chronologically, rather than physically, it appeared - by Twisted Nerve supremo Andy Votel in guest DJ mode, although the lack of any kind of physical presence in the form of a figure crouched behind a set of decks suggested that Votel might as well have phoned in his performance - and perhaps he did. Extra points for spinning some early PiL - something copiously bassy from "Metal Box", "Socialist" I think - a trick that Massive Attack also played whilst performing similarly spectral service at a Super Furry Animals Cardiff Christmas concert a few years back.

At around 8:35 Mr Votel's invisible hands cue up Badly Drawn Boy's "Tickets To What You Need" and soon man and band take to the stage to rapturous applause, Gough - looking for all the world like Captain Caveman, with only a nose visible beneath all the hair and that trademark woolly hat - taking a well-deserved ovation before he's even sung or played a note. (Mention must be made of the lavish stage design, too, based on the cover art of the "Have You Fed The Fish?" album, with porthole projection screens and giant model fish overhanging the crowd.) Unfortunately, when the music starts proceedings begin to career rapidly downhill. Introducing "40 Days, 40 Fights" he actually plays a few verses of "Have You Fed The Fish?", and when the promised attraction is eventually performed it takes Gough and the band three attempts to complete it. "We haven't had a soundcheck today because our drummer's been in hospital with a lobotomy", he quips - there's a heavy stand-up comedy element to a Badly Drawn Boy live performance - and whilst 99% of all known bands wouldn't be unduly concerned by the listless, bass-heavy cacophony reaching the audience, Damon is clearly displeased, throwing a model aeroplane and then what looks like a towel into the crowd to signify his unhappiness. "You're the best audience we've had yet, but it's a fucking shambles up here". And it's one of the many interlocking dichotomies of the Badly Drawn Boy concert experience that his wayward live reputation might actually be borne of trying (perhaps too) hard to replicate his immaculately dovetailed studio material on stage - his endless striving for perfection, abandoning songs mid-performance if he's unhappy with their progress, paradoxically makes him appear sloppy. Another thing: for a man so untouched by ego that he's happy to wander around in that hat and dive into the crowd on several occasions during the evening, what’s with the projection of photographs of himself (and his infant daughter) above the stage, and the use of his own material as intro music? Mysteries not to be solved.

Tonight's performance, then, is very much a concert of two unequal halves. Before the interval the technical and musical shortcomings infuriate, yet after a ten minute break he returns with a gorgeous, luminous version of "The Shining", all Nick Drake-on-Ecstasy happiness and joy, and it's like he's discovered an endlessly fascinating new vocabulary. When he's great - and there are many such moments, usually on the quieter songs - he's untouchable. Who else could create a poignant singalong suicide note from a mother to her 12-year old son ("A Minor Incident"), or funnel the experience of an infant daughter's first Christmas into something as snowflake perfect as "Donna & Blitzen"? And then there's "You Were Right", a strong challenger for his Greatest Ever Moment: sliding into it via a lengthy list of dead pop stars (in which he includes Tom Jones!) musical gremlins cause the collapse of the first two attempts, rather dissipating the momentum, but when it does arrive it’s glorious, a hurtling, hurting meditation on death, loss and love scooped up in a fabulous, Technicolor pop song.

There was at least 90 minutes of exemplary music performed tonight. Trouble is, like his hero Bruce Springsteen, the Boy's shows tend to take on marathon proportions, which leaves another hour of standing around waiting for songs to begin or mumbled anecdotes to end, or hoping he'd dig further into the rich trove of great songs contained on his three studio albums rather than treating us to another b-side or unreleased ditty. And the absence of the mighty "Disillusion" from tonight's set seemed like an oversight. Nevertheless, for the good times a Badly Drawn Boy gig will always be something special, even if he seems doomed to be locked in an ongoing, inconclusive struggle with his ambitious dreams of a shiny pop place far beyond the usual boundaries of live performance.

BADLY DRAWN BOY Have You Fed The Fish? (Twisted Nerve/XL Recordings)

"Have You Fed The Fish?", the third Badly Drawn Boy album, confirms Damon Gough as a significant artist. It's a kaleidoscopic, technicolor experience, the work of a man whose talent is always one step ahead of his ego - perhaps nobody has treaded the fine divide between genius and arrogance so gingerly since Morrissey's early solo heydays (the first words you hear, replicated on the cover collage, are "…And folks! If you take a look out of the right side of the plane you'll se a cloud that looks exactly like Badly Drawn Boy"). And it also provides succour to those of us who might have felt they overpraised the parenthetical, slightly off-colour "About A Boy" soundtrack simply because we were grateful for any kind of evidence that he still had something worth saying, and listening to, after the glories of the Mercury-lauded "The Hour Of Bewilderbeast" . If there's one nagging criticism of "Have You Fed The Fish?" it's that perhaps it sometimes betrays a kind of plastic, synthetic sheen, a clingfilm covering that almost seems to be suffocating the natural goodness beneath. But otherwise this is witty, memorable, tender musicmaking, as close as one man has come to replicating The Beatles at their "Abbey Road" peak of pop perfection. And as their career trajectories seem to be crossing in opposite directions, it's getting harder to determine whether Badly Drawn Boy is the British Beck or Beck is the American Badly Drawn Boy, a conundrum further muddied by the presence of Beck cohorts Tom Rothrock and Joey Waronker here.

It's the range of "Have You Fed The Fish?" that makes it startling. The aptly titled "All Possibilities" is somewhere between Mariachi band and "Saturday Night Fever", tumbling over itself with unbounded optimism. "How" returns to the easy, unobtrusive genius of "The Hour Of Bewilderbeast", casually juggling two different tunes whilst beseeching "How can I give you the answers you need/When all I possess is a melody?". "The Further I Slide" and "Using Our Feet" are seductive shuffles, food for the feet as much as the brain, whilst "Tickets To What You Need" dallies with music hall. The sweet, chugging piano lullaby "Bedside Story", meanwhile, somehow reminds me of The White Stripes' "This Protector". The album's, perhaps the man's, masterpiece is "You Were Right", with a jagged, nagging melody and a lyric that somehow manages to link being married to the queen, living next door to an admiring Madonna and the tragic deaths of John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Jeff Buckley and Kurt Cobain whilst simultaneously, slyly delivering a marriage proposal. And deep in the distance you can almost hear Mr Gough scratching at the outer limits of the possibility (all possibilities, perhaps) of what a pop song can say/do/be. Fantastic, utterly, a staggering achievement.

This is a great, great album. Whether it's better than "The Hour Of Bewilderbeast" I can't say - it lacks enough of that work's rustic, folky charm to keep the jury conferring, and ultimately the sensation that "Have You Fed The Fish?" isn't quite as sincere as it makes out is hard to shake completely. Nevertheless, it adds significant quantities of good work to the Badly Drawn Boy canon, and is a masterclass in interesting, experimental popular music.

BADLY DRAWN BOY / THE CANDLE THIEVES Royal Northern College Of Music, Manchester 21 October 2010

Peterborough duo The Candle Thieves are all kinds of fun. They play on a stage strewn with such comedy detritus as inflatable sharks, balloons and a teddy bear dressed in a Candle Thieves t-shirt. Ten years ago you’d’ve been legally obliged to stuff them in the same New Acoustic Movement pigeonhole as Turin Brakes and Ben & Jason, but they’re far more playful than either.                

Their unique selling point is their instinctive gift for turning in an audience-inclusive, multimedia sensory-surrounding performance. If that implies that a Candle Thieves set is like some kind of prog-concept-on-ice behemoth, it couldn’t be further from the light-touch truth. At one point Scott McEwan establishes a guitar loop and he and The Glock (the kind of nom-de-tune that smacks of spending too many summer afternoons inside with a pile of Eels albums) distribute instruments among the audience (a keyboard, a snare drum, a tambourine) inviting the spectators to fill out the sound. Elsewhere McEwan takes a song for an unamplified wander around the crowd, the kind of gesture that’s rarely seen even from supremely confident headliners, let alone a hungry support act. They even pause “We’re All Gonna Die (Have Fun)” dramatically mid-song to fire what might be the world’s smallest confetti cannon.     

What could sound like pointless gimmickry on paper is actually more chummily endearing in practice, perhaps to their disadvantage. It’s difficult to imagine The Candle Thieves’ pleasant but inconsequential songs packing the same impact as a home listening experience…unless, of course, their CDs are packaged with a toy piano and a box of indoor fireworks.               

What novelty Badly Drawn Boy deploys is strictly limited to the musical domain. He begins with a solo acoustic set of songs mostly taken from his definitive early albums “The Hour Of Bewilderbeast”, “About A Boy” and “Have You Fed The Fish?”, peaking with “All Possibilities” and a version of “The Shining” that gently morphs into and out of The Lotus Eaters’ “First Picture Of You”. It also features vocal and keyboard duets with the artist’s daughter Edie, turning in an astonishingly calm and self-possessed performance for a nine-year-old, lashings of self-deprecating Northern humour and numerous promotion spots for his new coffee mug.

The band join him one by one, “Stop Making Sense”-style, to perform material from new album “It’s What I’m Thinking, Part One: Photographing Snowflakes”, and they make a decent fist of approximating its somewhat dense, distant sound, a keyboard substituting for the record’s string arrangements. After a ten minute fag break the band return to tackle chewier material, including a swoonsome “Silent Sigh”, “Born In The U.K.” (an invigorating enough blast through the Boy’s cultural chronology sadly sunk for me by some of the most toe-curlingly embarrassing lyrics in the history of recorded music) and a slightly anaemic guitar/keyboard/drums version of “Disillusion”. Finally, the band dismissed, he duets with himself of a kind of karaoke cover of “Thunder Road”.               

Despite the occasional incident (some football-based banter that turns nasty and a guitar he decries as unplayable), false starts and forgotten lyrics, the 2010 Badly Drawn Boy concert experience is a far tighter one than the rambling, shaggy dog performances that have sometimes compromised his live reputation in the past.

BADLY DRAWN BOY / THE CANDLE THIEVES Royal Northern College Of Music, Manchester 22 October 2010 

With one show sold out, this second night was added to the tour itinerary, and, well, it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it? Tonight, within seconds of me thinking how much better The Candle Thieves  are than the previous night, Scott McEwan is apologising, somewhat unnecessarily in my view, for the quality of their performance. There’s no unamplified wander around the auditorium thus time, but the audience musical participation section is still present and correct. I also notice a few more subtle details in how the whole Candle Thieves experience is assembled, such as the way The Glock sellotapes down a few of his keyboard’s keys to provide a droning chord to play against, and how he sometimes crams three or four instruments – keyboard, glockenspiel (naturally), harmonica and snare drum – into the same song. Even those sharks and bears scattered about the stage have a kind of conceptual continuity justification, cropping up in the lyrics of at least two songs. Again, it seems as though they’d lose a goodly chunk of their appeal as a home listening experience, and I’m not convinced their cheerful experimentation could sustain a headline set. Here and now, however, they’re close to brilliant. 

Tonight Badly Drawn Boy ramps up the self-deprecating humour even further. During the initial acoustic set he obediently responds to requests for “You Were Right” (fumbled slightly, but nowhere near enough to disguise its genius, its roll call of deceased celebrities modified in tribute to Frank Sidebottom) and “This Is That New Song”. Post fag break, “Disillusion” still seems a bit, well, disillusioned, but “Above You, Below Me” is delivered as a thunderous White Stripes-style guitar/percussion showcase,  the drummer coaxing a colossal noise from his kit. “Silent Sigh” stakes a claim for greatness again, getting me wondering whether I’ve grossly undervalued its effortless pop perfection all these years, made even more palpable tonight as it blooms out of a somewhat lumpy cover of “Like A Virgin”. When the venue management generously grant a curfew extension he bungs in an old b-side “Golden Days” (although even he seems unsure of the title) and during that karaoke “Thunder Road” he goes walkabout, pressing the outstretched hands of the front rows.               

It’s that last gesture that gets to the root of Badly Drawn Boy’s appeal. There’s no rock star aloofness here; even more than last night his between song utterances (it seems like an injustice to call it patter) hint at a deep seam of insecurity in the badly drawn psyche, almost reaching Blue Nile levels of self-criticism. On numerous occasions he thanks the audience, suggesting that whenever he thought of giving up on gigging it was crowds like us that changed his mind. On this evidence it seems we should be as grateful as he is.

BADLY DRAWN BOY It’s What I’m Thinking (Part One – Photographing Snowflakes) (One Last Fruit) 

Belying its cumbersome title and cluttered sleeve, there’s an autumnal, foggy cloak of melancholy pulled tightly around Badly Drawn Boy’s seventh album. It has an atmosphere all its own – the less charitable might suggest that’s because no other record would want it – there being few albums I can think of that sound so much like they’ve had all the self-confidence squeezed out of them. Damon Gough’s lyrics do little to dispel the notion: in a voice that frequently sounds like it’s protecting itself with a covering of cotton wool, he almost pleads “I need you now/To help me somehow/And I’m scared to face it” during opener “In Safe Hands”. Second track “The Order Of Things” opens with the lines “I have to say/That I don’t know what I have to say”, its pattering, chiming electronica made all the more memorable by its slight melodic awkwardness and background television burble,  and woozy de facto title track “It’s What I’m Thinking” begins “I’m a failure at heart”. “Too Many Miracles” is a bouncy pop song smoothed by Spector echo, and “I Saw You Walk Away” almost has a 70s singer-songwriterly feel to it, albeit given extra abrasion by defensive lines like “If I don’t crucify myself somebody will”.  “This Electric” might be the closest the album comes to the kind of Technicolor experimental exuberance with which Gough made his pseudonym, but even this seems tentative and unsure, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but is most definitely a thing.

To be fair the album pretty much lays its promise (or threat, depending on how you view it) of interior confessional bare in its title. It’s a fine balance between attention-seeking and psychological excoriation, and whilst Gough’s honesty is, um, bracing, and his patchwork melodic skills are endearing in a quite-good-McCartney-solo-album sort of way, after 45 minutes of it it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is the kind of thing Eels make rather more entertaining.  

BADLY DRAWN BOY / I AM KLOOT / EVERYTHING EVERYTHING The Comedy Store, Manchester 28 November 2011


It’s something of a double-edged sword in this comfy, intimate and fine-sounding venue that those who have paid extra to score the reserved seats close to the stage have also stumped up to be within range of MC Justin Moorhouse’s withering but very funny observational tractor beam, none more so than Mary, a science editor by day/music blogger by night from Washington, D.C., who might well be more circumspect about publicly revealing her occupation(s) to strangers in future.


Whenever my iPod randomly selects an Everything Everything tune for my listening pleasure it takes around 30 seconds for me to realise that I’m not actually listening to something from the new Wild Beasts album. It’s all about Jonathan Higgs’ falsetto, followed closely by the band’s synthesised sonic barrage. Tonight the latter’s replaced by a three-quarters acoustic backing, to no diminution of their trickily clever meanderings. Very pleasant, it must be said, like a 21st century 10cc.


Equally pleasant are I Am Kloot, who emerge, “Stop Making Sense”-style, one or two musicians at a time as their set progresses. Sitting on the edge of the stage having forgotten his usual beer crate, John Bramwell projects a casual, unhurried air that somewhat backfires during a lengthy intermission caused by a faulty cable. Nevertheless, their trenchant songs, laced with suggestions of the blackest of humour, are deservedly well-received, sounding like a low-budget Tindersticks.


Tonight Badly Drawn Boy plays a typical performance in microcosm, featuring rambling indulgence, quite good bad jokes, jittery nervousness, unexpected covers (songs by The National and The Stone Roses) and the occasional flash of brilliance that reminds why people bothered about him in the first place (“The Shining”, which still morphs in and out of The Lotus Eaters’ “First Picture Of You”; “Once Around The Block”; “Silent Sigh”). Still, it’s all for a good cause, the evening being a charity gig in aid of a four-year-old girl with an inoperable brain tumour, so it’s a triumph of another kind, if not exactly a musical one.