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Badly Drawn Boy—aka scraggly, gap-toothed Brit Damon Gough—has something of a Madonna complex. It’s not so much that this chain-smoking cross between genre-hopper Beck and hammy showboat Robbie Williams wants to be the Material Girl; he just craves the fortitude to fend off her advances. He knows it won’t be easy, of course. After all, Gough may have a near-wife and two kids back home in Manchester, but the 32-year-old art-pop eccentric is also kinda digging the Viagric trappings of the Next Big Thing status he earned after his 2000 debut LP, the Mercury Music Prize-winning The Hour of Bewilderbeast. And so his dilemma remains: change diapers or schtup Madonna, stay home or see the world.
Gough weighs these particular options on “You Were Right,” the dreamy centerpiece to Have You Fed the Fish?, his delightfully oddball new album. The song has a defiant, Beatlesque bounce, and Gough, who sometimes sounds like a huskier John Lennon, soon invites some McCartney-style strings into the mix, too, proclaiming, “I’m turning Madonna down/I’m calling it my best move.” Ever the big ol’ softie, he then tries to soothe the pop icon’s pain by adding, “I’ll get her tickets to what she needs.” So there you have it: Gough is loyal to the girlfriend and kids and wisely chooses the family-values path, right? Not so fast. Later, on “Tickets to What You Need,” he reworks “You Were Right” into a flirtatious, Joplinesque rag, apparently trying to convince us that, hey, depending on his mood (and how long he’s stayed at the pub), this thing could go either way.
It can all get very silly, sure, but Gough, who used to sport gauzy Britpop outfit Doves as his overqualified backing band—and who once ditched music altogether to try out for the soccer gods of Manchester United—is too inventive a mix-and-mash studio whiz to make this a novelty piece. And that’s saying a lot, given that the 15-track album begins with a faux message from an airline pilot: “And folks, if you take a look out the right side of the plane, you’ll see a cloud that looks exactly like Badly Drawn Boy.” (To which the dumbfounded passengers respond: “That really does look just like him” and “Dude!” and “That guy’s everywhere.”) This segues into the instrumental “Coming in to Land,” which plays like the soundtrack for a Jamaican game show that’s been reworked for a Japanese audience—that is, before it turns into the score for a James Bond movie set in Calcutta.
But despite such arrow-through-the-head moments, Have You Fed the Fish? is something weightier than a cheekily named album that gleefully incorporates elements of classic rock, cocktail lounge, horndog funk, acoustic folk, and whatever other genres Gough feels like busting out. With his ever-present knit cap pulled low over his scruffy mug (appearance-wise, there’s definitely something to that Badly Drawn Boy thing), Gough really does seem to be struggling to master the tightrope walk between fame and family. For that reason alone, he was the perfect choice to score this year’s screen version of novelist Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, the tale of a well-heeled Lothario who shirks adult-sized responsibilities. Sure, Gough dreams of clouds taking his shape and of being a household—or 747—name, but it turns out that his latest effort’s Seussian moniker is actually a lot less zany than it seems: a query tossed lazily each morning from Dad to Mom to kids at the breakfast table.
“Sometimes you’ve got to rewind to go forward/There’s some good times around the corner,” Gough sings on the title track, a swoony slice of ’70s baby-grand bombast and a happy man’s reworking of Todd Rundgren’s “Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference.” The song, a gushy ode to peering beyond the limelight to more tangible joys, eventually morphs into a big-top waltz before turning back to beautiful again, but we get the point. On the Gomez-like jam “Born Again,” Gough takes time off from noodling on his guitar—and swiping a riff from Styx’s “Renegade”(!)—to sing, “There’s something rare going on under my skies/You gotta chill out/Find a reason for your soul again/And judge the miracle by feel not size.” And “I Was Wrong,” which leads, naturally, into “You Were Right,” is an acoustic strummer on which Gough, abandoning all manner of musical rubber chickens, oohs his aching heart out: “Now I don’t know how I could live without you/But certainly I know I’m not about to/I don’t believe in anything I see/Unless I can feel it, too.”
Fair warning to those who are charmed by such Hallmark-style gushing: Badly Drawn Boy’s live shows are notorious for turning into talk shows. He often neglects his duty to sing and play piano and percussion and synth and flute and guitar, and instead unloads the dizzying onslaught of thoughts that cloud his shaggy noggin. His rambling sends some rumbling for the exits, while others remain transfixed throughout. But love this Boy or hate him, Gough is simply a goofy guy with a great big goopy heart. He’s a romantic with a hand buzzer, a cut-up with a lifelong crush, and the mad-skilled ham behind one of the most playful and passionate albums of the year. CP