REVIEW: Badly Drawn Boy: Have You Fed the Fish?
Badly Drawn Boy: Have You Fed the Fish? [XL, 2002] (mp3s)
Three words? the fish died.
My response to Badly Drawn Boy's first full-length, Hour of the Bewilderbeast, was one of simple, unadulterated pleasure. Here was an artist recording whatsoever he wanted, representing his love, longing and off-kilter glee in songs that ran the gamut from suntouched ballads to romping, round-the-block pop epics. Digging into the BDB archive, one uncovers ancient EPs with collage, experimental folk, an English Beck indeed - kind, fuzzy-hatted, head-over-heels. Badly Drawn Boy sang his heart out, and if you nobody cared, his words would still go zinging out into the morning.
It is with great regret, then, that I admit that things have changed. When Badly Drawn Boy recorded a dud of an album for the movie About a Boy, I remained optimistic. Perhaps he was simply saving the good stuff for his next 'real' record. Well, the 'real' record has now arrived, and - dare I say it - the word 'dud' fits here, too.
Damon Gough - the name BDB was born with - is a skillful, exuberant musician. Anyone who has seen him perform live can attest to the man's dedication, his competence, his passion for music. It is tragic, therefore, that such artistic vigour could be channelled into an album that is as dreadfully, boringly cheery as Have You Fed the Fish?. It is one thing to write and record joyous music, to sing a paean to the sunshine of the world. It is quite another to write bland, rootin-tootin tracks whose primary attributes are the aforementioned 'cheeriness,' and an equally devastating 'bounciness'. There have been quite a number of great songs on The Muppet Show ("The Rainbow Connection", "It's Not Easy Being Green", "Mahna Mahna"), but in general, Fozzy and Kermit don't rely on great Art as a soundtrack to their road-trips. It's sad, then, that Have You Fed the Fish? would fit so easily amongst the wake-me-when-it's-over school of dumbed down kids' music. Music to turn down low and play patty-cake to? Sure. But why, pray tell, should I or anyone else pay attention?
Things bode poorly from the beginning: the disc opens with a short, ho-hum vignette aboard an airplane, the pilot spotting Badly Drawn Boy out the window. Ha ha ha ha ha! I know, I know! Then we swoop into an overture of sorts, visiting (and revisiting) some of the musical themes we can look forward to: syrupy strings, buzzing guitar, cheery synths, bouncy bass. It's a kiddie revue, ladies and gentlemen. Gough has excised the acoustic guitar and melancholia, replaced it with the wide-smiling face of a children's host, the sycophancy of a the guy who will "get you tickets to what you need". The goal of the record rears its head early: "The keys to your heart," he sings, "open the door to the world / you've got to give me two days / and woman / I'll make you a girl."
"Born Again" attempts to recapture the trundling energy of "Once Around the Block", Badly Drawn Boy rocking the arena with a droopy guitar solo. "All Possibilities" is empty midtempo balladry, drenched in violin; "I Was Wrong" tries Spanish guitar and what might be a moving love song were it not for the absolute lack of urgency. Urgency - passion, desperation, truth, the impression Gough cares - is precisely what's missing on this disc, audible only in fits and starts: when the over-eager production fades away for a few seconds on "You Were Right" and Gough sings a few words about Sinatra, Cobain, Lennon and Buckley; during the nostalgic instrumental "Centrepeace"; the accelerating reprise of sleepy "How?"; the McCartney-esque "Imaginary Lines". How can we possibly give a shit when he's doing an atrocious Stevie Wonder routine on "The Further I Slide" or harping on about Madonna, yet again on "Tickets To What You Need".
Have You Fed the Fish? is the indie equivalent of a Billy Joel record, an embarassment to the earnesty of Gough's earlier work, quirkiness gone adult-contemporary. The music is muzak, the lyrics are greeting cards. Please, Badly Drawn Boy, forget 'fun', forget getting us 'tickets to what we need': write about what matters to you, write from your heart - not from your sole (that's a horrible pun; I apologize).