When Badly Drawn Boy Damon Gough first emerged from Bolton a few years ago, we knew we had a real maverick on our hands. There was that name for a start – endearingly shambolic and with bagfuls of charm, the resolutely anti-star image of tea-cosy hat and scruffy beard, and the sheer ambition of his debut album The Hour Of Bewilderbeast – a record which seemed to be all over the place and yet remarkably focused.
These days, he’s like part of the furniture – whether it be appearing with a Hugh Grant film soundtrack one minute, winning the Mercury Music Prize the next and occasionally releasing the odd album which is praised for its unconventional qualities and eccentricity but never seems to set the charts alight. Now, it appears, Damon’s had enough of the Blunts and Rices of this world selling all the records, for Born In The UK, his first for major label EMI, is his most shamelessly commercial album yet.
It still retains that innate quirkiness that is all part of Gough’s charm however – see an introduction which appears to be a conversation between God and Damon about insecurity and doubt – but the overall atmosphere is melancholy piano ballads and lyrics about relationships and love.
It’s also the album in which Gough’s much vaunted Springsteen obsession comes full circle. He may have stolen a line from Born To Run for Everybody’s Stalking from his debut, now he’s naming a whole album in homage to The Boss, and ending the final song on the line “and if we still don’t have a plan, we’ll listen to Thunder Road”. Unlike his hero though, there’s a few too many lightweight compositions here for comfort.
The title track though is the very definition of charm. A nostalgic tale of growing up in the 1970s, it namechecks Jilted John, reminisces about hosepipe bans and isn’t afraid to risk arrest from the cool police by admitting that the Queen’s Jubilee meant more to kids in the ’70s than the rise of the Sex Pistols did. It scoots along in just over two and a half minutes as well, very nearly the perfect pop song.
It makes a nice change from the preponderance of mid-paced ballads on here as well, of which there are a tad too many. Gough is a master of introspection, but it all seems a bit syrupy sweet sometimes here. Welcome To The Overground multitracks the vocals to disastrous effect, coming off like a bad 1970s soft rock track so beloved of The Feeling. Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mind goes for the ‘epic ballad’ approach, but just gently meanders along, never really catching fire.
The best moments are those in which producer Nick Franglen (one half of Lemon Jelly) goes easy on the production and lets Gough do what he does best. The Time Of Times, one of two songs rescued from the original recording sessions which Gough eventually abandoned, is acoustic led and has an affecting aura of being both rather sad and quite hopeful at the same time. Long Way Round too has a lovely trumpet motif running through it, which almost makes you forgive the cliched lyrics of changes coming from within, rain pouring down to make you feel young again, and – honestly – life’s carousel turning round and round.
Things end nicely with One Last Dance, a touching tribute to his wife. In accompanying interviews for the album, Gough has intimated that Born In The UK is an album about taking stock of one’s life and finding one’s own identity. If so, then hopefully he’ll be refreshed and energised in time for his next album – for while this makes for pleasant enough listening, we know that Damon Gough can do a lot better than pleasant.