Somewhere between About a Boy and Have You Fed the Fish?, it became very uncool to like Badly Drawn Boy. He’s a goofball on stage, there’s no doubt about that, but his quirky presence and bad jokes should only make him seem even more appealing to the hipster cognoscenti. And though his last couple albums didn’t sound like The Hour of Bewilderbeast, they were still worthy efforts from a talented songwriter and performer. Gough’s inclusion of the title track on Fish may have been questionable, due to its sonic similarity to REO Speedwagon, but I still must not have heard the awful joke of an album that was mailed to some of rock music’s less forgiving critics.
Upon announcement of the release of Gough’s latest album, One Plus One is One, the Soulseeked (sic) masses gave their reviews on message boards, claiming the album was mostly acoustic and much prettier than BDB’s last two releases. Certainly, there was potential for One to deliver a return to the quirky folk-pop of Bewilderbeast. Much to my surprise, however, One Plus One Is One is actually more organic and orchestrated than Bewilderbeast. Gone are the drum machines and odd effects that gave that album its charm. But gone, also, are the distortion pedals of Fish, save for the one used on the lone rocker, “Summertime in Wintertime,” which, incidentally, doesn’t actually sound like Jethro Tull, despite its flute accompaniment.
At the beginning of album opener “One Plus One is One,” a reverb-heavy Gough sings, “I’m back to being who I was before.” But rather than going back to his lo-fi roots, Gough actually sounds more like Harry Nilsson, a once-dubious reference point given to Badly Drawn Boy that now sounds somewhat accurate. Aside from just looking alike, sonically they both seem to have a knack for warm, personal songs that are catchy and just the slightest bit theatrical. Gough’s songwriting style has always been charming and sentimental, but is now given the aid of cleaner production, not that that hindered Bewilderbeast in the slightest. The title track’s arrangement of piano, glockenspiel and strings gives it the “oomph” needed to kick off the album and get things moving. “Easy Love” and “This is That New Song” are gentle acoustic songs worthy of a Nick Drake comparison. And “Another Devil Dies” contains enough piano and trumpet hooks for a Burt Bacharach hits album.
The first single, “Year of the Rat,” sees Gough singing with a chorus of children, which ordinarily is a brutally horrible idea. And yet, it works. It’s even more charming given the visuals in the video, depicting an animated Badly Drawn Boy saving the world by giving everyone hugs. It’s kooky, even a bit mushy, but if you’re not smiling by the end of it, you’re emotionally retarded.
Gough lost some cred, which is bound to happen in most musical careers, but with One Plus One is One, he’s presented a chance to earn it back. He probably doesn’t care, nor do his fans. But One is one of the most enjoyable listens of late, and it’d be a shame to see it ignored because of Gough’s reputation among arbiters of cool. He deserves much better than that.
Harry Nilsson – Nilsson Schmilsson
The Polyphonic Spree – Together We’re Heavy
Rufus Wainwright – Poses
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.