With his third official album (discounting the About A Boy soundtrack), Badly Drawn Boy Damon Gough has gone back to his roots. He’s dumped the lush production of Have You Fed The Fish and eschewed the recording studios of LA for those of his native North-West (there’s even an instrumental called Stockport here). Teaming up again with Twisted Nerve boss Andy Votel it’s all very ‘back to basics’. As the man himself sings on the title track, “back to being who I was before”.
When artists try to rediscover a winning formula, it’s usually a sign that the magic has run dry. This has never been the case with Gough though. Even his less successful moments have had a veneer of songwriting gold dust scattered over them, and One Plus One is no exception.
Reading the CD booklet before playing the disc is proof that Gough hasn’t lost his eccentricity. Instruments involved in the making of the album include a flute, a “Wurlitzer Fun-Maker”, and there’s even the presence of a school choir on two tracks. Banish all thoughts of St Winifred’s singing Grandma We Love You though, for if anyone can get away with using some unconventional ingredients on a record, it’s Gough.
The choir is used to best effect on the album’s centrepiece, Year Of The Rat, a masterpiece of the type that Brian Wilson would be proud of. Unusual instrumentation floats around the song in a beautiful way while the chorus locks in your head. Then, near the end, the musical backing gets quieter until all you can hear are the children singing. In a lesser mortal’s hands it could have been disastrous but it works just beautifully here.
There’s a tighter hold on quality control this time round as well, as some of the lapses into self indulgence that marked some of his previous releases are notably absent here. There’s a more coherent structure as well, with less emphasis on Gough exploring each and every type of genre. It all adds up to his best album so far, and that’s in no small thanks to the quality of the songwriting on display.
As well as the aforementioned Year Of The Rat, there’s the pastoral Easy Love, the piano led Another Devil Dies, and best of all This Is That New Song. Some heart tugging strings introduce the latter before what is Gough’s most beautiful ballad kicks in. It’s very reminiscent of Nick Drake with some unbelievably tender lyrics (“if I knew where all the tears were flowing to/guide them to a river where I’d swim with you downstream”) and stands as one of Gough’s finest ever songs.
There’s also Four Leaf Clover with its terrific tempo changes, Life Turned Upside Down’s opening line which makes Gough sound like the little man from Twin Peaks, and the excellent closing track Holy Grail which employs the children’s choir just as the song switches tempo to end the album on an almost gospel note.
Once an artist reaches a third or fourth album, most critics are usually chomping at the bit to find something to hit their former darling over the head with. Not this time though – the backlash can be put on hold. The boy’s still got it.