Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
Records typically live or die by consistency, which is to say they could go either way. In music-critic-speak, a consistent album could either have a “unified sound” or be too similar overall. On the other hand, an erratic grab bag of styles and influences can confuse, disorient, and annoy.
Badly Drawn Boy’s debut The Hour Of Bewilderbeast pulls off the seemingly impossible: It’s a consistent grab bag, a cohesive hodgepodge, and a ramshackle collage that more than equals the sum of its parts.
Badly Drawn Boy’s alter ego, Damon Gough, had released EPs and singles in the five years before Bewilderbeast’s 2000 release (including the dizzying “Once Around The Block,” which later found a home on Bewilderbeast), and in the meantime, hype declaring Gough the “British Beck” was becoming stifling. Luckily for Gough, Bewilderbeast met lofty expectations. “After what feels like aeons of relentless buzz, time to taste the honey,” wrote NME. “The first thing to say about the debut Badly Drawn Boy album is that it’s an unambiguously cohesive piece of work, unlike the slew of skittish EPs which heralded Damon Gough as some bedroom-bound minstrel of melancholy and caused minor hurricanes in A&Rland.”
“The loose, scatterbrain album operates much like the early solo endeavors of Paul McCartney,” described Pitchfork’s 8.6 review, “with 80 percent developed gems flowing effortlessly from the damp, rustic English countryside.”
That flow is Bewilderbeast’s secret weapon. Songs weave in and out of each other like converging streams, making the “80 percent developed gems” sound like snippets of daydreams instead of half-baked ideas. Gough plumbs his musical influences to offer soundalikes of Simon And Garfunkel, Nick Drake, Bruce Springsteen, and, yes, Beck, but the variety never feels forced.
The record starts with a seemingly understated track called “The Shining,” which at first features nothing but Gough’s hushed vocals and a gently strummed guitar. “Faith pours from your walls,” he sings, “drowning your calls / I’ve tried to hear, you’re not near.” Before listeners can peg Gough as another post-Elliott Smith sad sack, however, in come the French horns and cellos, along with the line “I’m dying” and its wink of a follow-up, “to put a little bit of sunshine in your life.” The overall effect is one of humanity and humor, and it becomes clear that, like Smith, Badly Drawn Boy finds light in unexpected corners. This, we realize, might even be fun.
And it is. “Once Around The Block,” a bouncy bossa-nova-style piece of yearning, is unquestionably the record’s centerpiece. Gough apes Burt Bacharach’s erratic time signatures and “dah-ba-dah” vocals, and the gently pleading lyrics echo his hero Bruce Springsteen (who Gough quotes on two separate occasions on Bewilderbeast).
“Disillusion,” with its disco hi-hats and electric guitars, is something of a stylistic 180, but it’s still unquestionably Badly Drawn Boy. Likewise, the ambling country detour “Pissing In the Wind,” with an unexpectedly heartfelt chorus, sounds simultaneously like nothing else on the record and like nobody but Damon Gough. For an unassuming bloke in a beanie cap, the guy makes quite an impression.
The Hour Of Bewilderbeast recently received a 15th-anniversary deluxe release. While its bonus disc of Bewilderbeast castoffs is wildly uneven (the darkly catchy “Road Movie” would have sounded at home on the album; most of the others would not), it provides a glimpse into Gough’s creative process. He reportedly chose the album’s 18 tracks from 100 contenders, and these inessential songs prove that his instincts were right.
So how does a combination of indie rock, bossa nova, folk, and chamber pop hold up so many years later? Perhaps because its eclecticism never sounded particularly of its time. This was, after all, the era of soggy mope-pop groups Travis and Coldplay, the latter of which began its steady ascent up the charts with the debut Parachutes that same year. Producer Ken Nelson worked on Parachutes and Bewilderbeast, and a year later, he produced Quiet Is The New Loud, the excellent debut by fingerpick-pop duo Kings Of Convenience. Nelson’s subtle touch lent each of those records a rich sound, but Bewilderbeast has aged best. Gough’s record sounds like many eras at once, but it still doesn’t quite sound like the year 2000. (Of U.K. acts from the time, Bewilderbeast’s closest relative may actually be Gorillaz, whose 2001 self-titled debut crackles with the same “let’s put on a show” energy that Gough put into his first batch of songs.)
In an email interview, Nelson said that compared to Parachutes and Quiet Is The New Loud, The Hour Of Bewilderbeast was a more intimate experience. ”Recording Badly Drawn Boy’s songs was very different to those two. For a start, we were recording in Damon’s own studio in Manchester. I remember it had a very small live area where we set up a drum kit and some guitar amps. He also had an upright piano in there. With Coldplay and Kings Of Convenience, we were recording in larger rooms for a more expansive sound.”
Nelson added that though piano parts for the tender “Magic In The Air” were recorded on a Steinway at Liverpool’s state-of-the-art Parr Street Studios (where it was so cold that Gough required a couple of space heaters to keep his fingers warm), the homemade sound of the album was the result of that small space, as well as an instinct to keep things unpolished. “Damon’s priorities were all performance-related, as were mine,” wrote Nelson. “I remember recording instruments just to get the idea on tape, only to find when it came to replacing these parts later, he couldn’t better the original recordings, so they became the parts you hear on the record. Performance always comes first.”
Gough received Britain’s Mercury Prize for Bewilderbeast in 2000, and his follow-up, the soundtrack to the film About A Boy, remains a surprisingly affecting piece of work. Despite some highlights (among them “The Further I Slide” from the underrated Have You Fed The Fish?) Badly Drawn Boy’s subsequent albums have come nowhere near this astonishingly complex debut.
Nelson agrees: “The Hour Of Bewilderbeast stands out in my memory because it shows the songwriting skills of a great artist at the peak of his powers. I believe he never quite matched this album in the work that followed.”
“Why you have to make it so complicated?” sings Gough on “Disillusion.” “Can’t it just be beautiful?” On Hour Of The Bewilderbeast, remarkably, he accomplished both.